By Moira Payne
I was 18 years old when the telephone rang. My grandmother had passed. In a moment of stunned disbelief—this was my first experience of death in our family—I was also informed that in two hours my flight would leave for Boston. There was much to be done and very little had to do with processing emotions. I had to arrange for someone to cover a shift at the restaurant where I was waitressing, contact my college about missing class, find someone to care for my cat, and pack a suitcase. I had never been to a funeral, and my only reference was the movies. Yet, somehow, I managed to sort it all out and found myself surrounded by family, all mourning my grandmother.
My father was an only child and the center of my grandmother’s life. One of my most vivid memories of her is that she always cooked for him, even though he lived in Michigan and she lived in Chelsea, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. Each time he visited her he would bring home a green vinyl suitcase filled to the brim with tin-foil rectangles and plastic containers frozen solid. She made enough blintzes, kinishes, kreplech, latkes, and matzoh balls to feed our entire family and any guests we had, filling her freezer until it was time to give it all to her son. Everything was prepared perfectly and with such love.
On the night of her passing, he had just arrived for his visit. They went out to dinner, just as they did each month, and late that night she transitioned. The following day was her funeral. There was a blizzard that morning; pure, glistening snow covered the earth, and I listened as relatives recalled humorous stories, shared touching moments, and recognized my grandmother’s courage in life. I discovered things about my grandmother through the stories on this day that I had never known. Years later, it was my father’s pain that I remember the most from that day, and my feelings of helplessness as I stood nearby.
The next day, I remember packing up her belongings, watching as her entire life was placed in boxes to be sent, brought with us, or given away. We also packed up the green vinyl suitcase for the last time, knowing that she had cooked for him right up until her passing. On the flight home, I recognized that this might be my last trip to Boston—my last time seeing my distant family. It was.
Decades have passed, and since then I have been to many funerals. I have watched as friends have sorted through the various arrangements, driven by traditions and wills, as they have buried their friends and loved ones. I have witnessed the desire for perfection in those arrangements as people pay their respects—and I have witnessed the stark coldness of grief in the aftermath. For when the activity is done, the grief remains.
When the time is right, one of the things that we can do is honor those who have passed. In my home, I have an ancestor altar. I started it years ago, putting up pictures of my late relatives, and then, as time passed, my late friends. I added protection statues that were significant in my tradition: crystals, heirlooms, letters, and other odds and ends that reminded me of those who have passed.
My ancestor altar has become a sanctuary to which I gravitate when I need to be enveloped in peace. I find myself smiling through the veil that separates life from death as I seek answers from those who were wise. This is where I go to be close to my grandmother again. I feel her presence there and remember the stories that were told as I gaze on her pictures. At times, I feel I can smell her cooking and even hear her laughter.
I never place pictures of people who are still living on my ancestor altar. Some traditions stress that the ancestor altar should never reside in your bedroom; some say the altar should face west. Some deem the altar should be in a private place; others mandate a position of prominence. My altar has moved many times, and I feel that you can decide what works right for you in your own home. As our lives change, our altars change, and our situations dictate what feels right at that time.
Cleansing this space is important, both physically and energetically. I remove all of my items periodically and wipe everything down. I use incense as a smoke cleanse and play music in the background. I play music from my grandmother’s era when I want to feel a deep connection to her, and at other times I play songs of healing. I use an altar cloth underneath and place each item back, taking care to place them in a particular way.
Birthdays, holidays, and other dates may prove to be the most difficult for those who are still in the process of grieving. This may be a good time to honor your ancestors in other ways. Fix their favorite meal, placing a small portion on the altar overnight. Beverages can also be placed on the altar, such as a glass of water that is replenished every few days. Flowers can be placed on the altar as well. When these offerings are ready to be discarded, I find they are best to be returned to nature.
Speaking aloud to your ancestors is important. Read to them from favorite books, scriptures, or letters. Saying their names will help with the connection. I keep a bowl on my altar, filling it with scrolls of paper upon which I have written things—requests for help, declarations of forgiveness, and petitions on my behalf.
Some have chosen to have famous people on their altar that have served as replacements for their family—or even characters from story books. Archetypes can be powerful in this way and can be used to heal and guide us. I have several famous people on my altar that have served as my heroes that continue to guide my path. As they join my ancestors, I feel a deep sense of connection with them.
Relationships are not easy. They can be complex and full of pain. I know people who have chosen not to put people on their altars for this reason. We can honor their memory in other ways or choose to sever all ties. To sever ties, people have performed rituals and written letters to the people who have wronged them. They have poured out their hearts in their letters and then burned them, burning away their feelings of obligation to venerate. No one should feel obligated to have to honor their abusers. Sometimes it is best to let the pain rest for a while before deciding how you would like to proceed. You can burn the memories and bury the ashes or let the ashes float down a stream away from you as you watch.
There is no expiration date on when to set up an altar. Some people need much more time to process their grief before they explore ancestor work. Items can be respectfully stored until they will be used. The event of pulling items out of storage can be a ritual in itself, as the items are handled with reverence and love. Carefully planning the ritual will make it more special, and the exertion of effort—making food, lighting candles, singing, reading aloud, writing—may bring peace.
With complex relationships, we may not always feel connected to our ancestors. One way to find out if your ancestors want to connect with you is to simply ask permission. As I work with cycles of the moon, I may start on the first day of the new moon and ask that a message be received by the full moon if permission is granted. When you allow your awareness to be open in this way, you will see your message in a form that may surprise you.
Many people have told me about messages that they have received from their ancestors. Phones or doorbells ringing, lights flashing, televisions turning on or off seem to be quite common. One friend told me that when her husband passed, she received a picture of the two of them together sent from his cell phone that was sitting within her sight next to his hospital bed. Finding pennies in strange places in your home is a common occurrence. Feathers on walkways, butterflies landing on cars, eagles circling above—these are small reminders that our loved ones are near.
If you are looking for messages, keep a journal next to your bed and start recording your dreams. If you have difficulty remembering your dreams, you can write down the feelings that you have when you wake from sleeping. Numbers are a common occurrence. I have friends that associate particular numbers with their deceased loved ones. When they see those numbers, they feel their ancestors have given their approval. If you are asking for specific answers, write down the question and ask it aloud, leaving the question on your altar overnight.
What is remembered, lives. This is a common saying among Pagans. When I contemplate the meaning of this, I think of those memories that we bring with us. I have chosen to remember the happy times with my deceased loved ones; I remember them in their perfect health. I remember the good things that they did. We can learn their crafts and give [to charity or other good works] in their name. We can pick up the trash. We can plant flowers and trees. We can care for animals and cook food for the hungry. We can stand up for those who continue to be oppressed and marginalized in our society. We can honor our ancestors by continuing their good works.
Moira Payne was born and raised in Ann Arbor. She walks the path of the Witch, having respect for all things in this world and beyond. She is active in the Pagan community and participates in festivals across the country. If you would like to contact her, email WitchesOfAnnArbor@umich.edu.