Ancestor worship, or veneration, is practiced by a variety of cultures all over the world. There are many ways of honoring departed loved ones and welcoming their support and guidance in everyday life. Having an ancestor altar, or boveda in Spanish, is one way.
One of my favorite books, Finding Soul on the Path to Orisa: A West African Spiritual Tradition by Tobe Melora Correal, gives a great description of building an altar dedicated to the ancestors, or egun in Yoruba.
Here’s my version based on what I was taught by my godmother.
1. Table. Dedicate a small table or top of a bookshelf to your altar. It should be out of the way where no one will touch the items on it. My godmother even suggested the top of the refrigerator!
2. White Cloth. Cover the surface with a white cloth.
3. Photos & Mementos. On the cloth, place photos of deceased loved ones (only) and mementos that belonged to them. You can also include a list of the names of loved ones and their dates of birth. Follow your instincts about other items to include. If a small doll or knick-knack calls to you, maybe it belongs on the altar.
4. Water. In the center of the altar, place a glass of water. The smaller and more simple the glass the better, but some people use large brandy glasses.
5. Candle. I like using tea candles or other short-lived sizes.
6. Food & Drink. Offer favorite food or drink to your ancestors. Rum and espresso are safe bets if you are not sure what else to offer. My maternal grandfather asked for Sanka in my sister’s dream, so that’s what he gets. My paternal grandmother loved cafecito, caramels and gladiolas. I try to offer these things weekly.
7. Weekly tending. Many santeros tend to their altars on Sundays, some on Mondays. Whatever day you choose, replace the water, food and flowers weekly. Remove flowers before they die or wilt and food before it goes moldy. Whatever you decide to offer, you should either make the offerings weekly or save the offerings for special occasions, like birthdays. For example, I make my grandfather his favorite pie on his birthday.
8. Communicate. Talk to your ancestors. Ask for their help. Pray to them. Ask them to offer you guidance in a form you can understand. Then, look for the omens, signs and dreams that will let you know that they hear you and are with you.
I just began using mine. The act of cultivating relationships, even within the spirit world, makes me shy. xo