Honouring the departed and ancestors is commonly performed during Samhain and Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) ceremonies.
However, working with ancestors doesn’t have to be exclusively reserved for these days.
Working with ancestors can be a practice used in witchcraft, but isn’t exclusive to the practice.
You can create your own tradition and way of honouring your ancestors and decide how you want to work with them in your own practice.
How to Work with Your Ancestors
Who are the ancestors and why work with the ancestors?
Ancestors can be people from your lineage such as distant relatives and those part of your family tree.
These can also be people from your cultural heritage that you share a commonality with. They can be viewed as elders in your cultural background.
Ancestors can provide guidance, wisdom and messages to help you in your every day life and your spiritual journey.
In a way, they can be compared to spirit guides in that they can work with you to help you achieve your goals in this life.
However, they have a blood connection to you and are more closely connected to this physical world as they have lived in it previously.
Some spirit guides have never taken a physical form while others have.
Spirit guides have chosen to become guides based on their knowledge and skills in certain areas which they work closely with you for the purpose that aligns with their expertise.
While you have a spirit guide family, the ancestors are your lineage and cultural family. They are part of who you are.
You share a cultural DNA marker with them passed down through generations.
You can choose to work with them in magick and spell crafting, seek guidance from them or understand yourself, your background and discover more about patterns and behaviours that are generational or have been inherited in the family.
Adoption & Ancestors
If you or someone you know who is interested in working with the ancestors, but are adopted, it’s still possible to be connected to your ancestors spiritually even if you don’t have a physical connection with your birth family.
If you are aware of your cultural background from your birth family, you can connect with that energy to those who are distant relatives.
If you’re unaware of your cultural background aside from your adoptive family and you feel most connected to your adoptive family as your natural family, you can work with what you are familiar with as your adoptive ancestors.
I feel that ancestors can not only be direct lineage relatives but also adoptive as you have been accepted and welcomed into a specific family line.
Know Your Culture to Know Your Ancestors
How ever you choose to work with your ancestors, you should have a good understanding of the culture of your ancestors.
If you come from a mixed background like myself, you may feel connected to one side of your family more than the other.
If you were raised in the traditions of one cultural background, but not another of the family background, you may feel more inclined to that culture as you’re more familiar with it.
However, explore all your cultural backgrounds to get a better understanding of them.
You can work with all your cultural backgrounds as they are a part of you or you may choose to stick with one rather than the others.
Understand the customs and traditions of your heritage and research folk customs as well. Some may be outdated, but nonetheless may have been what your ancestors practiced.
Learn more about traditional foods and methods of making them to feel more connected with your ancestral heritage and your ancestors.
How to Honour Your Ancestors
There are a few ways you can begin your practice to work with your ancestors.
Some may be specific to your culture and background, but generally many customs start with an area in your home designated to honour your ancestors.
Setting up a shrine in your home is a special way to honour your ancestors which can be as simple or elaborate as you wish.
You can use a shelf or table to create your shrine. Place a cloth over the shelf or table and display photos of your deceased relatives, add crystals, flowers, keepsakes, heirlooms, family antiques or whatever you wish to make it special to you.
Offerings can be made at your ancestor shrine such as alcohol libations, food, tobacco, incense and special items such as crystals. These offerings can be made regularly or on special occasions.
Keeping a shrine to the ancestors is something that needs to be maintained and looked after to keep it clean and neat as a way to respect and honour your ancestors.
The difference between using a shrine for your ancestors and the altar is that magickal workings are done at the altar.
You can set up photos and other items to represent your ancestors on your altar to invite them into your magickal workings and spell craft.
Cultural items can also be added to connect you to your cultural background.
When performing magickal workings with ancestors, offerings of thanks should be made such as with alcohol, food, tobacco and/or incense.
In some traditions, specifically around special occasions, it can be customary to set an extra place and plate at the dinner table for those who have passed before you. This is a tradition that my family holds at every family dinner on holidays.
At Samhain, there is a pagan tradition called the “Dumb Supper” in which the meal is observed in silence from start to finish to honour those who have crossed over.
Reserving a specific candle to honour your ancestors can be used anytime and anyplace. You can make your own candle or use a decorative candle for only this purpose.
Place it on your shrine, altar or table and use anytime that you want to honour, welcome and/or work with your ancestors and those who have passed before you.
This candle can also be lit on anniversaries of those who have passed away and on special occasions when you wish their presence was with you.
For example is the Jahrzeit candle which is as a Jewish tradition of lighting the candle for honouring someone on the anniversary of their death, and can also be lit on the eve of Yom Kippur or on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Working with Your Ancestors
Working with the ancestors is entirely by personal choice and how you choose to work with them is up to you. Here’s a few ideas on how to work with your ancestors:
Healing & Advice
Asking for advice and wisdom is one of the best ways to work with the ancestors and to understand yourself and your family line.
Certain behavioural patterns and health matters are inherited and you can work with your ancestors to understand them better and to bring healing to yourself and even to your ancestors.
Your ancestors can help you to heal ingrained patterns that may have developed from childhood which can also be a result of what your parents went through during their childhood (which gets passed down).
Working with ancestors can help heal cyclic patterns inherited through generations.
If you feel there’s a cyclic pattern, addiction or behaviour that is passed down from generation to generation, your ancestors can help to work with you to realise these patterns and to heal what has stemmed likely from an ancestor.
Your ancestors are a part of you and can be an addition to your spiritual support group.
If you have difficulty connecting with your spirit guides or just can’t seem to grasp them, consider connecting and working with your ancestors to receive guidance.
Working with ancestors utilizes your psychic abilities, so when you call on them trust what you hear, feel, see and sense.
Spend time in meditation with your ancestors and allow yourself to be receptive to their presence.
Make an offering, light incense and allow yourself to open up to them. Use a method that helps you to meditate, open the chakras if you feel that method works for you.
If you work with spirit guides, you can ask your gatekeeper guide (the one that facilitates and monitors contact with spirits during mediumship) to help you establish a link to your ancestor(s).
Tarot & Oracle Cards
Tarot and oracle cards can be an easy way to get messages from your ancestors as a visual medium.
If you feel that you’re not comfortable or confident enough to receive messages outside of divinatory methods, then tarot and oracle cards can help direct and answer your questions and provide guidance.
When using divination to receive messages from your ancestors, affirm your intention aloud or firmly in your mind that you’re seeking guidance directly from your ancestors.
If you read intuitively, you may feel a shift in the energy or tone of the messages that are received.
When working with ancestors and tarot/oracle cards, keep a section separate in your tarot or divination journal and reserve it for ancestral work only.
This way, you can keep track of messages directly from your ancestors and refer back to it when you want to review later.
In addition to using any tarot spread to receive guidance from your ancestors, you can make and/or try an Ancestor Tarot Spread to speak directly to your ancestors and receive messages and wisdom.
Spell Craft & Magick
Working with the deceased for magickal workings technically gets into the territory of necromancy, which a lot of people shy away from. It’s received a lot of controversy in terms of what it is and isn’t.
Most pagan practitioners stay away from it, but some other cultural traditions still work with the deceased in their spiritual workings.
However, on that note, necromancy is rather intended for the advanced practitioner and not at all designed for the novice practitioner.
Working with the deceased in any magickal form as necromancy was often done to foretell fortunes, divination and other magickal workings.
Sarah Anne Lawless has a post that explains this further in detail: Ancestor Worship in Modern Witchcraft.
Working with your ancestors can be rewarding and spiritually fulfilling. It takes continual work to honour them and keep them actively present in your life.
The more you work with them, the more you may notice signs that they are with you. You may quickly develop your psychic abilities further and get messages more frequently outside of divination readings.
Ancestral work is most common during the month of Samhain as the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, but ancestral work can also be done anytime and especially during the dark moon (three days before the new moon each month.)
Even if you don’t feel closely connected with your physical family, you can find a connection with your ancestral family and heal that relation which can bring healing to other relationships and yourself.
How ever you choose to honour or work with your ancestors may it bring healing and wisdom to your practice.
If looking for more information on honouring ancestors, be sure to check out Book the book Honoring Your Ancestors: A Guide to Ancestral Veneration by Mallorie Vaudoise.