Beloved Dead – Making an Ancestral Altar

Have you ever been touched by the passing of someone you didn’t know personally?

I was in high school when Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, died. Although I was already a certified geek back then, Roddenberry meant little to me at the time. My friends may have been Trekkies, but phasers couldn’t stand up to lightsabers as far as I was concerned. Star Wars ruled, at least in my opinion, and I probably would’ve given my eye teeth to meet Princess Leia, just like many of the boys of that era.

I was definitely out of my element the night Roddenberry’s death was announced. I’d decided to see how the other half lived and indulge in an evening of “debauchery” at the annual Star Trek social. There I was, surrounded by uniform-clad officers flipping each other Vulcan high-fives and fiddling with their fake ears. I’d been gritting my teeth through a Klingon conversation that had gone on way too long when a man smeared with blue face paint and sporting a pair of Andorian horns mounted the stage. I still remember the hush that fell over the crowd when he announced Roddenberry had died. A lone speaker buzzed, playing no music for what felt like an eternity before a woman began to sob audibly at the back of the hall.

I longed to be anywhere else.

After making sure my friends were okay, I refreshed their drinks and retreated briefly to the washroom. It would be many years before I took any sort of counselor training, and I had no idea how to handle all the feelings suddenly packed into that room. When I returned, the social had started back up again but the party wasn’t quite the same. My friends and I won for our costumes at night, but I’m not sure my date still cared. I didn’t know how to help her process what she was going through, or whose job it even was to do so.

Looking back, I know now that she should have turned to family, a guidance counselor, or clergy member if she needed help dealing with the issue. That’s still what I would suggest now. Moreover, as clergy in training at the Temple of Atem, I hope that the members of my congregation feel comfortable enough to approach me if they suffer a similar loss, regardless if it is a member of their blood family or a family member of the heart. I certainly want to establish that level of trust with them eventually.

So many of us nowadays live estranged from our families of origin—and often with good reason. When a person tells me that they are no longer in in contact with their family, I no longer feel the urge to judge. My judgment will add nothing to the situation for good or ill. If they feel their familial relationships need repaired, then they will eventually seek out a solution. If it isn’t broke, they won’t fix it and won’t seek my help in trying.

Think about how many animals continue to live with their parents after reaching adulthood. While some animals live in large extended families, within these groups social order is usually quite rigid, with every member knowing their role or place. Members cannot step outside that position without altercations occurring. On the other hand, when offspring leave their parents after growing into an adult, they typically assume all the roles their parents once held and then go off on their own… at least in the animal world. In both of these instances, parents and offspring wanting to step into the same position are forced to butt up against each other as competitors for resources and standing.

Why people would believe humans would act any different within our families boggles me. We remain animals, and our baser instincts kicked in whenever we or are resources seem threatened. Of course, what I interpret as the threat may be nothing to you. That said, the world today runs at a breakneck pace which can trigger us to fight for competition when no need for competition actually exists. While watching TV or scrolling through our Facebook feed we are inundated by advertisement trying to convince us that we need products we have never heard of before. Worse yet, our neighbor already has them! The world does not support cooperation as it once did, even among families. It is no wonder that we often seek comfort from outside sources, whether these are friends of the heart or figures we have adopted from television or other media.

Were also told, however, the competition will make a strong, to suck it up, and that we should “never let them see you sweat.” When one of these extended family members dies, we can be unsure how to deal with it. It’s one thing if a close friend passes away. We can attend their wake or funeral, possibly go through old pictures and letters, and maybe even reminisce with others who miss them too. But what about those “friends” that we only know through television or media? What about someone like Gene Roddenberry who affected people but never met most of them?

An actor I liked died last night. I won’t say he was one of my favorites. After all, I never hit that obsession point where I had to look up everything he’d ever done. That could be because John Dunsworth couldn’t be classified as “cute.” In fact, he is best known for playing Mr. Lahey, a frequently disgusting character on Trailer Park Boys. Yet Lahey had recently undergone a redemption of sorts, if such things can be said for any of TPB‘s characters. The show is something of a phenomenon where I live, spawning 11 seasons, three comedy specials, and just as many movies. Almost every character is awful: a complete exaggeration of the people you know if you’ve ever lived on the wrong side of the tracks. They’re always working on a scheme to make a buck, but rarely keeping their heads above water while using each other as life rafts. These characters epitomize broken families of origin that won’t let each other go, and families of the heart that help each other survive.

Finding out Mr. Lahey’s actor had died was like a punch in the gut. No, Mr. Lahey wasn’t real, but I genuinely felt for him. John Dunsworth had portrayed him with great zeal too, literally letting it all hang out for is acting on more than one occasion. He been gloriously gross and heart-breakingly poignant in the role. A true talent that had left my family roaring with laughter more times that I could count. I wanted—needed—to do something to mark his passing in my life.

Since it was my partner that notified me of Dunsworth’s death, I contacted my hubby at work to make sure he was doing okay first. We decided we would pour one out for both John Dunsworth and Mr. Lahey later in the evening, since it seemed in keeping with the style of his character, and that was how we knew the man best. Such a ritual may sound silly, but toasting a fallen comrade and then pouring some of the alcohol into a bowl or directly onto the ground is a time-honored tradition that goes back long past the days of urban street gangs. You can see it across many cultures, from where spirits are offered strong drink in Voodoo and Hoodoo, to the sumbels and blóts of the ancient Norse. The Egyptians in the times of the pyramids and even before also made food and drink offerings to their dead, and their pharaohs were regularly buried with elaborate gifts.

For tonight, it simply seems appropriate to toast the man who portrayed a notorious drunk. In my opinion, appropriateness is the most important thing. We will use hard liquor and speak straight from the heart, no doubt dropping a couple F-bombs as well. If I were wishing a very feminine young lady on her way, none of this would suit at all.  That rite would be far more formal, decorated nicely, and involve white wine. That is not to be stereotypical, but to hopefully sum up the person well. As morbid as it is, you can probably imagine what would be used to toast you and what would be discussed at your wake if you’ve played the game where you ask a friend, “What five items would you place in a pentagram to summon me?” Truthfully, it may be a good thing if we could all be so easily stereotyped and thus remembered by our loved ones.

In this Halloween season, how would you want to be remembered? What five items would you place on your own ancestral altar? With that in mind, I urge you to create an ancestral altar for one of your own beloved dead, whether they be family of blood or family of the heart.

Here’s one way a small ancestral altar to a specific person can be arranged.

Making an Ancestral Altar

sigil deathdemons death demonic demons demonolatry daemonolatry ancestors altarChoose a small table that you can sit or kneel in front of comfortably. Drape it in black cloth. It is fairly easy to find black table cloths and place mats during this season, but this altar does not need to be spooky or foreboding. You can just as easily use a clean, black napkin or hand towel purchased from any department store. If you have none of these things, go with the darkest, most neutral color you have.

Place a picture of your loved one in the center of the altar. You can carefully write their name and place it in the center if you don’t have a picture of them. Alternatively, you could use a ghost autograph using their name or make a sigil out of it using your favorite method. During communion with the Death Daemonic last year at this time, I was granted a sigil and enn that I could use to communicate with my own beloved dead. I was told I could share it.  This can also be placed in the center of an ancestral altar as the focal point. You can see it to the left. You must inset the name of the dead person at the end of the enn if you plan to utilize it.

Set things that the dead would enjoy around the focal point. Add sigils to Eurynomous, Baalberith, and Babael.

On nights you feel so inclined, sit before the altar, burn appropriate incense, and speak to the dead. Leave offerings that they would like. Some people feel it is right to take part in these offerings, while others do not. This can only be decided by you.

Either way, let the lion’s-share of the offerings sit on the altar until the life seems to have been taken from them: usually 24 hours for drink or until food begins to wither. If your home does not permit letting the offering stay on the altar this long, return them respectfully to the earth immediately after the ceremony.