Six Ways to Work With Ancestors

Six Ways to Work With Ancestors

Ancestor's Altar

Creating an altar to honor your ancestors is a meaningful way to revere your family lineage and stay connected to loved ones who have crossed over, not just at Samhain, but all through the year. This altar won’t give away your secret if you aren’t out as a witch, either. Choose photos of your passed loved ones, put them in coordinating frames and arrange the photos on a mantle, shelf or side table.

Ancestor Altar
Ancestor Altar

If you’re really short on space, or prefer a minimalist decorating style, slip your ancestors’ photos into an album. A crafty witch might consider a scrapbook type album, where items like birth certificates, marriage licenses, and especially letters, postcards, notes and even recipe cards can be included. Anything with an ancestor’s handwriting can serve as a direct connection to their energy. Open the album to any page to work with a specific ancestor. Or hold the album in your hands to connect with whichever ancestor wishes to come forth. 

Whether you display photos individually or in an album, add candles, personal artifacts, and an offering dish to your altar. A vase for flowers in season, or a green plant, adds a nice touch, but more than that, tending to the living element is symbolic of tending to your dead.

My ancestors’ altar includes my grandmother’s rosary, my fathers watch, a gold pin my mother wore, a handful of coins from my grandparents’ homelands and other small trinkets with special meaning.

Soul Supper

A soul supper is another way to honor your ancestors through planning, cooking and serving a meal of traditional foods from your heritage. Or, mix it up, making all the favorites of your deceased family members, dedicating each course to a loved one, or a cultural branch of your family tree.

Soul Supper

First, decide what you’ll make. A simple appetizer my mother frequently served was a refreshing pear salad that can go with any meal. My ancestors are Balkan and Croatian on my father’s side, and French Canadian on my mother’s. Each tradition has an iconic dish featuring pork, and while I’m not going to roast a suckling pig over an open pit or bake a pork tourtiere, a slow roasted pork loin will serve nicely to honor both sides of my family. Sweet, red, table wine to replicate my grandfather’s home brew has to be on the table, along with a loaf of crusty bread, that I’m told my grandmother made without measuring ingredients. For dessert my brother and father’s favorite chocolate chip date cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. 

While you plan your meal, write your shopping list, select ingredients and finally prepare all the dishes, recall memories of the people you are honoring and stories your parents or grandparents told you of relatives you never knew. Bring their photos, or your ancestor album into the kitchen with you.

When you serve your soul supper, set an empty place and light a candle to guide your ancestors to the table, that is if they haven’t already been led there by the aroma of all their favorite foods. Offer a simple invocation that honors your passed loved ones before partaking of the meal. If you wish, fill the plate you set for them, and pour a glass of wine (or other beverage). When you’ve finished eating, bury their portion and bless their eternal soul.

Let The Music Play

If you’ve lost loved ones from this life, there is likely a song that reminds you of them the instant you hear the first note. Maybe there’s more than one song for some of your loved ones. The melody and lyrics make you cry or smile, but there’s no doubt of the instant connection across time and the realms, so much so that we believe it is our loved one sending us a message.

Why wait for these songs to come up randomly on the radio or your streaming device? Messages can be sent both ways, so why not use these heart songs to call loved ones you knew in this life? Get comfortable, ground and center, use breathing or another method to enter a meditative state and let the music play on. 

Wishing to use music to connect with ancestors you’ve never met? First, try to remember if there are any clues to what music they liked. I recall my father telling me that his father loved the song “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain.” But, you may receive this information in other ways. A dream of more than 20 years ago is as vivid for me today as it was then. My grandmother, who passed before I was born, sat at a piano playing “Twilight Time.” Part of the dream’s lasting impact on me was that I’d never heard the song (or at least had no recollection of it). I had to look up the few lines of lyrics I heard in my dream, to find the complete song. I was stunned, but not surprised, to recently find out that it was released in 1945, the year my grandmother died, and again in the month and year of my birth. Now I’m more sure than ever that dream was a visit from my nana.

Put It In A Letter

Speaking of songs, I now can’t get the image of Betty Davis, singing “I’m writing a letter to daddy, his address is heaven above,” out of my head. Despite the kookiness of the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, there is merit in writing to your deceased loved ones. And in fact, it might be the best method of connecting to ancestors from long before your time.

I’ve started a journal for this practice so that I can collect all of my letters in one place. I choose a quiet time, when I won’t be disturbed, make myself a cup of tea, light a candle and write to a relative that has passed on. I reminisce about good times, offer regrets for the rough times. I ask for and give forgiveness. I also tell them how much I miss them. 

For those I didn’t know in life, like my grandmother, I start by telling her a bit about myself, about where I fit in the family and who my children and grandchildren are. Then I go on to ask  the things I’d like to know about her.

I don’t expect answers right away, although sometimes thoughts pop into my head that seem to come from somewhere outside of my own realm of knowledge. I jot those down in my journal and then keep the writing flowing. Other times, when I go back to read the letters I’ve written, it seems that I have received some of the answers I was seeking. Maybe these answers came in a dream. Maybe they were “downloaded“ as a certain knowing (claircognizance), or maybe another family member shared them with me.

Visit the Dead

Do you know where your ancestors are buried? Do you visit them? You should! When you go, bring gifts with you. In the style of the folk tradition of Dios de Muerta, I bring food and tokens of remembrance when I visit my ancestor’s resting places.

Breaking bread at the gravesite is an amazing way to connect with departed loved ones. When visiting my parents and brother, I bring coffee and cookies, or what my father called “dunkers” (slightly dry, day old cake donuts that he bought on sale at the bakery). I drink my coffee and enjoy the sweet treats, leaving a portion for them.

I often bring small wind chimes and solar lights for my mother, replacing the old with new because I saw a little chime, or a flower shaped light that I knew she would love. My father is a bit harder to find gifts for, but I can always leave him a nickel, the shiny coin he would give me as a young child when I would run up the stairs to our second floor and fetch something for him. 

Bring gifts that represent the things they’ve missed. Photos of weddings, babies, graduations and other milestones. A copy of my first published book would have put them over the moon if they’d lived to see it—of course it will delight their eternal spirit just the same.

Light a Candle

The simplest way to connect with your ancestors is to light a candle and sit in meditation. If you can’t have an open flame, an electric candle or small light serves as well. If you have an item that belonged to them in life, hold it, think of how they used it, or wore it. Repeat a simple mantra or chant, calling their names, asking for any who wish to be known to come forward. Open your mind and heart to messages they might send, or just to feeling a connection to your lineage.

Willow Rose

Willow Rose-Senior Editor, Head Kitchen Witch and BadAss Crone. Willow is a writer, artist and wildcraft witch. After more than 30 years of practicing and exploring many paths, she is distilling her magic to it's purest form—witchery without dogma and practical magic for everyday living. Read her musings here on The Way of Witch, and also at the Agora for Patheos Pagan and on her blog at

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