Spiritual practices are varied but they’re all significant including the beauty and significance of creating your own altar and practicing non-traditional self-care modalities. Now we’re sharing how ancestor veneration is an extension of altar work and a powerful integration in one’s spiritual practice. We interviewed two experts, Medicine Woman and Reiki Master Melody Garrido, and Curandera Dr. Lisa Martinez, who share their insights on how to get started or further accelerate your ancestor veneration work.
What is ancestor veneration?
Garrido: Venerating our ancestors is not worshiping them, but holding remembrance, reverence and deep respect for those in our blood line and inner circles. It’s the continuum of our energetic bonds between realms. When we venerate our ancestors, we’re helping their spirit elevate, keeping their energetic imprint & stories alive. We exist because our ancestors lived, walked, worked and breathed before us.They deserve our honor and respect. If it was not for them, we wouldn’t be here.
Why is ancestor veneration considered important in your personal practice?
Dr. Martinez: If not for my ancestors, I would not exist. My spiritual practice as a whole would not exist as it is now. Interwoven in my daily life are the teachings, traditions and practices of my ancestors. I learned by actively watching and listening to those whom I had relationships with. Through them, the practices and stories of the ancestors of past came through. For the ancestors whom I never met in my lifetime, I have found veneration to be a powerful way of making connections to things I believed were lost.
What are some quick and simple tips you recommend for those seeking to begin ancestor veneration?
Garrido: First and foremost, ancestor veneration begins inside us, not [only] on an altar. Simply begin acknowledging your ancestors, learn their names, [and] say them out loud. Learn their lifestyles, careers, likes, dislikes, patterns, dispositions, love lives, if they died tragically, etc. Educating ourselves on their lifestyles will benefit us far more than setting up unnecessary altar space. Ask elders in the family about them, dig, research. I recommend offering lights, burning white novena candles, and fixing “spirit plates”.
Customarily, in most African and Indigenous based traditions, before we sit down, we serve our ancestors first, their plate is placed outdoors on the ground with a candle. I recommend leaving ofrendas they enjoyed while they were here, not the generic coffee, rum and cigar routine. If abuelo didn’t smoke and his favorite treat was Malta, galletas and queso crema, leave that for abuelo, not some offering he’d be repulsed by if he was here.
Growing up, my family had ancestor walls, not ancestor altars. One wall in the home, was designated for the ancestors. It was adorned with old photos of different faces framed in mahogany gold and silver. There are many sources online regarding ancestor altars but I find most people focus too much on aesthetics and struggle with truly connecting. Ancestor veneration should be personalized according to what is customary to cultural tradition. It should be enjoyable and a connection should be felt over time. It can be as simple as burning white candles, leaving a water vessel, plates, prayers, libations, songs, money and keeping their pictures hung in high traffic family rooms.
Dr. Martinez: To be honest, some individuals may already be doing it without realizing it. It does not always take on the form of a table covered in a white cloth with a glass of water and a white candle. Many of my family members do not consider some of the simplest actions as ancestor
veneration, but I giggle because to me, it is in every way. It is common practice for us to gather
(even via zoom these days) to “have coffee with dad, tia, grandma” etc. Sometimes we make an
ancestors favorite dish, go to their favorite place. Many of us have pictures in our homes where
all the ancestors are in a “special place”. Our heart and spirit calls for us to do this naturally. The
only difference is that some of us have a more formal way of veneration.
Does ancestor veneration look the same for all or is this something that varies according to many variables such as ancestry and culture?
Garrido: Although there are eerie similarities within traditions of ancestor veneration globally, practices may be similar at their core but we all have different customs, traditions and how we view our ancestors. Some cultures like my own have selected days of the week to honor the dead, like Mondays, then designate a day of annual celebration when the veil between realms is especially thin. Some cultures follow the phases of the moon in connection to the dead, some honor them at burial sites, by the river. Some hold 2 week long festivals honoring their dead, lighting fires, reciting chants & performing dances. Sadly with the spread of evangelicalism, many of these customs have died down since they are ignorantly marked as idolatry. Cultural customs have been destroyed, ancestors forgotten, languages lost. To forget our ancestors is to forget our roots. When we forget our roots we miss a huge key element relating to who we are and what makes us tick.
Dr. Martinez: No, not at all. There are of course similarities. We can see variations between cultures, ancestry, regions or even families. It is so beautiful to me and I love learning about it as much as I can.
How can ancestor veneration help us further heal ourselves and in turn, our families?
Dr. Martinez: The more advanced side of ancestral veneration comes with elevating problematic ancestors. By advanced I mean it takes more effort, dedication and consistency to do. The process varies between traditions and is done typically over the course of many days and sometimes weeks.
I feel it is important to acknowledge that elevating problematic ancestors does not come with ease for everyone. Especially if this was someone who caused a great deal of pain in their lifetime. In my opinion, it is not easy to actively ask that [ancestor] to be elevated in the spirit realm when you are actively angry with them. With that said however, we could see the value of the work. With forgiveness comes great healing.
Garrido: Modern science has proven that trauma leaves a chemically charged scar in the genes and is then passed on generationally. So, if emotions are inherited genetically through cellular memory, it would be our birthright to take action in elevating our ancestors to higher schools of consciousness. This helps their spirit heal and in turn ourselves and future generations. Many of our ancestors died with unfinished business, addictions, triggers, blockages and those issues trickle down to us, if we like it or not.
When we understand the concept that emotions and patterns are inherited, we begin to peel back layers and begin the healing process that traces issues to the root. By learning our ancestors lives and venerating them, we learn more about ourselves and our own personal power. Many of my ancestors were activists, healers, spiritualists, writers and musicians. When I discovered this early in life, it was not only empowering but provided answers to why I’d gravitate towards the path I’d walk. My father taught me, “you are never small with your ancestors behind you”.
They tell the story of our natural talents, abilities, gifts, issues, triggers, love interests and blockages. Understanding and venerating our ancestors is a powerful key in unlocking our fullest potential. It’s also imperative, that us with ancestors that endured severe inhumane hardship, to begin the healing process and initiate connection. My ancestors from Kiskeya, The Dominican Republic, were the first to experience inhumanities inflicted by Columbus and his men. My Indigenous Taíno Arawak and African roots consist of timelines of Tyrannical dictatorship, gruesome cruelty, biological warfare, human trafficking, enslavement, mutilation, torture, forced child prostitution, rape, civil wars, invasions, famine, and near genocide. Colonization alone wrecked havoc on many of our generations, including our emotions.
Our ancestors were stripped of their land, names, language, families, livelihood and spirituality. That alone deserves our attention, reverence, prayers, honor and respect. It’s our responsibility to work with our ancestors. So take a moment of silence to reflect on their struggles and strengths. Say their names, send them prayers, tell their stories, hang their pictures, and continue to heal the fragments of ourselves they occupy and our future generations.
Ancestor Veneration is More Spiritual and Less About Physical Objects
As you can come to conclude, ancestor veneration work is less of accumulation of physical objects that can represent our ancestors, but more about intention work of wanting to honor our loved ones and assist them with further ascension in the ethereal realm. Allow yourself to be intuitively guided in the process and know that your ancestor veneration outlook will evolve.
Where can you start? Start with asking your elders and family members to share their memories and watch the storytelling catapult you into this work. Take your time with the process as it can be emotional and heavy. By simply starting, you’re making your ancestors proud in the process itself. Enjoy.
May you manifest wisely.