Dead relatives serve as guardians and intercessors, watching out for you from beyond the grave. Personal ancestral spirits may be the most accessible of all spirits. They are your ancestors; they have their eyes on you; they are easily invoked. Ancestral spirits are dependent on you: ancestors do not exist without descendents. This makes them simultaneously extremely receptive and helpful (and they’re your family: they love you), but also dangerous and demanding (they’re your family, your elders: they feel entitled to boss you around). The concept of the ancestral spirit exists around the world and in virtually all cultures and spiritual traditions. If you lack your own personal traditions, others are easily adapted.
Essentially the dead are not really “dead”: they’ve just transitioned to new homes and new forms, but their souls still require nourishment, love, and attention. Lacking this, spirits of thedead become hungry, angry, and destructive. It is crucial to keep the spirits of the dead appeased.
* Happy, honored, well-fed deceased family members serve as helpful, benevolent protectors.
* Hungry, ignored deceased family members transform into dangerous ghosts.
Ancestors who feel neglected may signal their frustration and unhappiness by causing misfortune if only because, cynically but possibly accurately, they believe that if things are not going well, you’ll remember them and give them offerings in exchange for their help.
Ancestors are your specific lineage or extremely close relatives. Thus a beloved aunt, uncle, or cousin is considered an ancestor, even if not literally so. However, there must be some blood connection. Random people you respect, close family friends, godparents, saints, or anyone else may be venerated or serve as your spiritual guardians, but they are not, by definition, ancestors.
Even if ancestors were not overly helpful while living, in death they are dependent upon you and may be deeply invested in your success: their suffering was not in vain if you succeed and thrive. They live through you and wish the best for you although you may have to let them know what is best and where their help is needed. In return, they wish to be remembered, loved, venerated, fed, and cared for on a regular basis.
To which ancestors do you appeal? Whichever ones you prefer or those for whom you feel the closest bonds. Your actual descent, your DNA if you will, goes back to the dawn of human time. If you are alive, then you are the product of a long chain of ancestors who all lived long enough to reproduce: no mean feat considering the global history of illness, infant mortality, warfare, and natural disasters. If you are not comfortable with your immediate ancestors, then go back further. It is not necessary for you to know who they actually were, nor do you need to know their names. Visualize them hovering near, waiting to be honored and put to work. Ask them to identify themselves in dreams and visualizations.
Amulets: Ancestors—or what’s left of them— may be incorporated into protective amulets. Some believe that a small quantity of one’s parents’ ashes, bones, or teeth, taken from their cremation, will bestow protection. Alternatively, dirt or small stones taken from their gravesite may have the same effect.
Place: Ancestors are with you always. It is customary to maintain home altars for them. However, it is also traditional to visit them at graves (if known): keep the grave clean, bring flowers and gifts, and picnic among the tombs (in essence, go to their house for a change, instead of always expecting them to visit you).
It is traditional in many cultures to allow the dead to have a grace period, usually a year, to adjust to their new status (and “life”) as a dead soul before making requests for assistance.
Days: Any date of personal significance: their birthday or anniversary of death. Ancestors may be particularly receptive on your birthday or days that are significant to your particular family. If being together on Christmas or New Year’s was extremely important while relatives were alive, they may return (or be beckoned closer) on that day. Alternatively, virtually every culture has (or had) days specifically devoted to commemorating the dead:
* The Romans celebrated the Paternalia, a privateholiday when families honored their personal dead. Paternalia occurred just before the Feralia: a public holiday intended to appease, pacify, and allay all the dead.
* The Catholic Church designates All Souls Day (2 November) as the day on which souls of the dead are recalled.
* The most accessible modern commemoration of the dead is the Mexican Day of the Dead festival coinciding with All Souls Day (but often a complex, days-long festival).
Altar: The Spiritist mesa blanca (white table) may be adapted to honor ancestors. Alternatively, any kind of altar or offering table may be used. Include photographs of relatives if you have them or objects symbolizing those relations for you instead. (See the Glossary entry for Altar for details and instructions.)
Flowers: Specific flowers, such as chrysanthemums, are associated with the dead and are considered appropriate offerings. In Mexico, marigolds (Tagetes species; not Calendula; in Nahuatl: cempazuchitl) are the Flowers of the Dead. In Romania, the fall-blooming crocus (Crocus banaticus) fulfills this function. Interestingly, the center of this crocus is a vivid yellow, similar in color to Aztec marigolds. In Japan, red spider lilies (Lycoris spp.) are associated with death, funerals, cemeteries, and the loss of loved ones.
Offerings: The most basic Western offering (Spiritualist or occultist) is a glass of water and a white candle. The most basic East Asian or Buddhist offering includes flowers, fruit, and incense. More elaborate offerings will also be appreciated: serve the ancestors food they like, a food representative of your ancestry and their time on Earth. If that isn’t possible, offer them something that you love and consider special.