A devotional practice for the Beloved Dead can be a comforting practice. While I believe the dead are always with us, creating a sacred space for them in your life can give you a way to deal with difficult losses. It’s not that I did not miss my great grandparents or grandparents who have passed away but those losses are expected, normal. Losing my best friend at 22 was devastating, even if given the overall circumstances not exactly a surprise. She is also one of the spirits I have had the most interaction with: it’s because of her that I set up my spirit altar. She had this way of just being present: palpably, unbearably present at times. Sometimes when I needed her, sometimes just because, and sometimes when she needed something from me. One thing she needed from me, was a space, and energy: so I set up a shrine and try to have a regular practice.
Ancestor worship is common around the world. Each culture has it’s own specific rituals for ancestor worship. Some cultures believe the dead must be fed, or they will seek retribution, and others do not deem it necessary but still believe the dead are with us. In my personal belief, I think both theories are somewhat true. If an ancestor or familiar spirit can help, why can’t they hurt? Not to say that a spirit necessarily would want to hurt you, but if you have done something offensive I don’t think there’s any reason to believe it’s not possible for spirits to harm us. On the other hand, I do not believe one’s ancestors are really harmed if you do not set up an altar, talk to them, or feed them in any way.
I serve my ancestors and the Beloved Dead because I love them, out of respect, and a hope that if I keep their memories alive they will be more inclined to come to my aid. Some spirits need more or less of this kind of attention and feeding. Especially those spirits still clinging to this realm on the outskirts: to see loved ones through, to complete unfinished business, or out of pure love for the living; their spirits need nourishment. Common offerings to nourish the spirits include favorite foods (unsalted), white or blue candles, flowers, cigarettes, and alcohol. I also burn incense, especially spirit blends, which are better attuned to the spirit realm to nourish them. I try to spend a little time at my shrine at least one a week cleaning and talking to the spirits. Generally, at this time I will burn some incense, talk with them, and listen to see if they have any messages for me. This is also the place I go when I need advice or comfort.
Performing rituals to the dead, or leaving special offerings, may included more tools. For example, many cultures create spirit boxes or houses which hold the deceased ashes, belongings, or other symbolic items. These are vessels to house the spirit in this world. I do have this kind of box for one spirit: to allow her easy access to come and be with me. It’s important when making these vessels not to bind a familiar or ancestral spirit to the vessel. I mean, really think about it, that would be pretty awful if your grandchild bound you to a box – no matter what the reason, even if just because he or she could not bear to let you go. I also leave offerings and practice personal rituals to honor the dead on anniversaries of their death, birth days, or other special days. This time of year, and throughout the dark period, I also leave them special foods and offerings during the sabbats. In the dark of the year, when the veil is thin, I have a more active practice.