How to make an ancestral altar: A cross-cultural guide : Life Kit Your ancestors don't have to feel like a distant memory. Spiritual practitioners share cross-cultural guidance on how to set up a ritual and an altar to honor them at home.

How to deepen your connection with your ancestors

How to deepen your connection with your ancestors

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Items from NPR Life Kit host Marielle Segarra's ancestral altar, clockwise from right: a Julio Iglesias cassette tape, an address book, a crucifix, a mango candy, a card with a rose depicted on it, eyeglass lenses and a ring. Malaka Gharib/ NPR hide caption

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Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Items from NPR Life Kit host Marielle Segarra's ancestral altar, clockwise from right: a Julio Iglesias cassette tape, an address book, a crucifix, a mango candy, a card with a rose depicted on it, eyeglass lenses and a ring.

Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Every morning, I greet my ancestors. On my bedside table, I have a little display of their mementos: the address book that belonged to my abuela, or my grandmother in Spanish; the lenses from my grandfather's eyeglasses; and a cassette tape of children's songs in Polish (a gift from my great uncle), among other things.

These items are a reminder of the love I have for my family — and of the wisdom they've passed down to me.

Ancestral altars, as they're called, are common around the world. In Mexico, people create an ofrenda, or altar, to remember loved ones on Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. And in many Buddhist traditions and African religions, altars have a permanent space in the household so people can honor the dead not just once a year but every day.

Altars are for everybody, says Ehime Ora, who teaches people about African spirituality and how to pay homage to their family lineage. "You don't have to be religious or part of the Indigenous spirituality of any culture. Absolutely anyone can create [an altar] and an ancestor veneration practice."

While there are many ways to connect with your ancestors, altars offer a "sacred place" that can help remind you "that you're not alone in the world, you're not alone with your problems," says Camara Meri Rajabari, a psychotherapist who helps Black, Indigenous and people of color explore their ancestral roots.

Interested in setting up an altar at home and starting a ritual to honor your ancestors? Spiritual practitioners and Indigenous educators share a cross-cultural guide.

Step 1: Explore your intentions

Find your why. Maybe you want to remember the things your ancestors taught you. For Chelsey Luger, a member of the Anishinaabe and Lakota nations, that's the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin. It means 'we are all related" in the Lakota language.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Before you make an altar, figure out why you want to connect with your ancestors.

Maybe you want to bring their values into your daily life, says Chelsey Luger, who co-authored The Seven Circles: Indigenous Teachings for Living Well with her husband Thosh Collins. The book offers health and wellness guidance rooted in Indigenous ancestral practices.

Luger is a member of the Anishinaabe and Lakota nations. Her ancestral teachings have taught her the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, which means "we are all related" in the Lakota language. "Everybody is a part of this greater web and nobody is greater or less than anybody else," she says. Paying homage to her ancestors reminds her of this philosophy — and her place in the world.

Keep in mind that your why doesn't have to be spiritual. You might create an ancestral altar to simply remember those who paved the way for you, Ora says. "If you don't want to look at it as a spiritual practice, look at it as a moment of gratitude for just existing."

Choose a space for your altar. It doesn't matter where it is, as long as it's your designated space for reflection.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Step 2: Choose a special spot for your altar

I put my altar on my bedside table because it's filled with my most treasured possessions, items that I wanted to have near me while I sleep.

Ora says my altar placement is perfectly OK — there isn't one right place for an altar. "I've had altars that were on top of dressers, tables, inside closets and even a suitcase."

As long as it's a designated space for "intentional, formal communication with our people," that's all that matters, she adds.

Step 3: Display objects that represent your ancestors

While an altar's contents and style may vary according to culture, religion and tradition, its basic purpose is to "house our ancestral energies," says Rajabari.

Gather objects for your altar. They embody our ancestors' energy and remind us of our loved ones.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

In many ancestral traditions, objects, symbols and belongings such as crystals, dolls and photos are displayed at an altar to embody our ancestors' energy, she says. These things "carry an energetic signature that connects with our sense of history and our imagination, which will give us the parts of [our] history that may have been lost."

See if your family can give you any family heirlooms or tchotchkes to add to your altar. Maybe your mom's cousin is sitting on a collection of buttons from a beloved great aunt, or maybe somebody inherited all the childhood photos of your great grandparents.

If you don't have items that belonged specifically to your family members, find things to represent them. Although Luger does not have an ancestral altar at home, she says she keeps "objects that we have spiritual reverence for." That includes a bottle of Givenchy perfume, the kind her grandmother would always wear. As for me, I have a Julio Iglesias cassette tape that I found at a vintage store on my altar, because my Titi Margot loved his music.

If you don't know these details about your ancestors, talk to older family members and ask them for information, which you can then use to find objects for your altar, says Ora.

"For example, if your parent said their mother was interested in gardening, ask them if they remember what her favorite flower was. Now you have an item that can go on your ancestral altar – and an offering that you can lay for your grandmother."

Once you have these things, arrange them at your altar.

Step 4: Start a ritual

Create a ritual. Do something to acknowledge that your ancestors are special to you.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Sometimes "we need a set of actions to help us to acknowledge things that are very sacred and special to us," says Collins, who co-founded Well for Culture, an Indigenous wellness group, with Luger.

Rajabari says a prayer and meditates at her altar every morning. "I talk to [my ancestors] about mundane things or I may bring them my challenges," she says.

In many African religious traditions, says Ora, it's common to leave offerings, such as food, for your loved ones. "Just as food provides us with nutrients for our health, this has a similar effect with our ancestors. It provides them with the strength to deliver on your prayers and grow the bond between you both."

As for my own ritual? I say good morning to each of my relatives. Sometimes I'll light a candle. Or I'll put on my grandmothers' rings.

I never got to know most of my grandparents and certainly not their parents. But when I sit at my altar, it honors the fact that they lived. And that brings me a lot of peace.

Your turn: How do you stay connected to your ancestors?

What is your relationship like with your ancestors? What have you done to learn about their lives, honor them or connect with them? Have you built an ancestral altar? Email us at lifekit@npr.org with the subject line "Ancestors," along with some photos, and we may feature your response on NPR.org.


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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