Magical Missive: How Do You Honor Your Beloved Dead

Ceremony and Ritual

M

iracles, beloved dead

As promised, the next few Lunar Letters will continue a series I call “Magical Missives”. These are letters in which I share specific magic know-how for your pleasure and personal adaption. I know, I’m excited about it too!

For this Magical Missive, it’s only fitting that we work with our Ancestors and the Beloved Dead. After all, autumn is in the air, and we are nearing Dia de Los Muertos, or the Days of the Dead, as well as the day of Samhain/All Hallows at the end of October, beginning of November.

My goal here is not to overload you with information (we’ve got enough of that, don’t we?) but for you to walk away with a way to frame the work and some super practical ideas you can use to help you cultivate and enrich your relationship to your Beloved Dead.

I have seen quite a few articles advising people on the one true way to honor their Ancestors and/or to build the altars, make the offerings, etc.

The question I always ask and encourage you to ask, is: is this helpful to you? There are about as many ways to honor the Ancestors as there are Ancestors to be honored!

So in this missive I share with you how I do it and how I was taught, and how many locals in my city go about honoring their Ancestors, not as THE ONE TRUE WAY, but as helpful suggestions and enticements to you to get started in what is a wonder-filled deeply personal adventure.

Start Here: Discover and Reflect
So you want to cultivate your relationship with your Beloved Dead. Wait. Hold on. Why in the world would you want to do that?

Here’s why, y’all: your relationship to the Dead, paradoxically, nourishes and vitalizes your relationship to life. For real. If you want more vitality in your life, begin with the ways you are or are not honoring those who have passed away, those Beloved Dead.

If you are like most people who have grown up in the pretty conventional parts of the United States and Canada, you likely won’t even think it is possible, let alone desirable, to have a vibrant and active relationship with the Dead. You probably think building rich and creative altars for the Dead is, well, a little weird, a little morbid. In fact, you likely don’t even think about it at all. Honoring the dead with lovingly created altars is probably not even on your radar, except when we are hard-pressed to do it by necessity. And even then, many of us honor the dead as little as possible, and with as little as we can.

The truth is that honoring our Beloved Dead – as often as possible and with as much joy and love as we can – is a normal and deeply human preoccupation, something people have done in most times and places, all over the world from ancient times down to the present day.

The fact that we do and can relate to our Beloved Dead is one of those universal themes we see repeated again and again. Some of the earliest human habitations feature ritual burials placed lovingly, exactingly, right under where the current generation lived, slept, ate, and raised their children.

Traditions honoring Ancestors can be found in ancient Africa and Asia across the Mediterranean, throughout Europe, and of course in South and Central America as well as Mexico. The conventions around death in much of the U.S. and Canada and some parts of Western Europe are quite simply an aberration (and typically a sanitizing cover-up of more vibrant indigenous traditions that needed to be rooted out for political and religious reasons).

Despite our technological advancement, we seem to be the illiterate brothers and sisters of a wider world of humanity, peoples who are highly literate in the ways of death and honoring the dead.

Now different cultures have different rules and norms when it comes to how you relate to the Dead. The good news is that we can begin to learn again the ways we’ve forgotten and enrich our relationship with our Beloved Dead. But we have to be willing to listen and learn.

We have a great teacher in North America: Mexico and certain parts of the Southwest of the United States. Honoring the Ancestors and celebrating our Beloved Dead has become much more popular in recent years, especially with the release of movies like “The Book of Life” and “Coco.” Those of us who grew up with these traditions typically feel that this newfound popularity is well deserved.

Where I was born and raised, in San Antonio, Dia de Los Muertos is a big deal – the whole city celebrates it. In one area of town, a large community altar brings together people of all walks of life in a colorful a rich celebration of those Beloved Dead. Even if you are not Mexican, South, or Central American or of descent from those countries, you can learn from this tradition about your own relationship to mortality. For it strikes a deeply human chord, and resonates with the heart, with what’s true.

I always advise my students to first begin where they are. Do a little digging into your own background. I am not talking about taking a DNA test – although if you want to, go for it. I am talking about speaking to any living family members you have about death lore and death customs in your family. Maybe all has been forgotten, but maybe not!

You may be surprised to learn that you have more than you think you do. This, in turn, can lead to learning new things about your heritage and lineage deeper than modern memory, and it is a wonderful way to begin the process of honoring your Ancestors before you build a single altar!

Ancestors Alive: Who are the Ancestors?
Before we talk about how to honor your Ancestors let’s talk briefly about who the Ancestors are. Generally speaking, the term Ancestors simply means the ones who came before you and in common usage refers to relatives and family members (typically, but not always, related by blood).

You don’t need to go very far down this road before you discover that you probably have some ancestors that you did not know and did not hear stories about (and therefore have no relationship with) and you may have ancestors that you did not get along with while they were living and you do not want to have a relationship with them.

This is why I break the term of Ancestors up further and talk about our Beloved Dead. Your Beloved Dead are the people related to you through blood (family members) or spirit (the family members that you choose. The Beloved Dead can include well-known or even famous historical figures) that you have a deep relationship with and to. They are the ones you love.

There are more levels of Ancestors you can work with, but for starters, we will just talk about the Beloved Dead – they are the ones you will honor during this time of year and they are the ones who will be represented and nourished at the altar.

And while we are on the subject, let me remind everyone that our pets and animal familiars are also included in the category of our Beloved Dead! It is completely traditional to honor deceased pets and animal companions on the altar and to work with them throughout the year. So do include your wild ones when considering who your Beloved Dead are.

While there are many ways to honor and work with your Beloved Dead during this time of year and throughout the rest of the year, in most cases, the first step is to build them a house so to speak. This house is what we call the altar.

Altars, Altars, Everywhere
The first thing you will want to do before you place a single thing on the altar is deciding who and which Beloved Dead you wish to honor. Yes, you may have only one individual on the altar if that is the only Beloved Dead you have. Yes, you may have lots of individuals on the altar if you have lots of Beloved Dead. A couple of rules of thumb that are useful to keep in mind are:

  1. As I was taught it is inappropriate to honor the Beloved Dead that has not been deceased for at least a year. This means that if your Aunt or your beloved cat died in March or April they would not be included on the altar you build in October. There are exceptions to this and ultimately you have to do what feels right and in alignment for yourself.
  2. It is not appropriate to put the pictures of the living on the altar with images of your Beloved Dead. The exception is babies that have not yet been born (ie, ultrasound pics) may be placed on the altar. It is also customary to put items that belong to the living, especially the living you wish the Ancestors to bless and protect on the altar, just not their actual image. For example, you could have a charm bag that you made for one of your children on your Ancestor Altar but not the picture of the child. Again, consult your own best lights when following these guidelines.
  3. Family members can usually happily share an altar space together. This includes in-laws, so you may include all the Beloved Dead in one place. The exception to this is if there was a serious rift between certain family members. If there was, and you wish to honor both of them then it is a good practice, at least as you begin this work, to give them each their own space.

Keep in mind that the altars and offerings we make for our Ancestors are basically proxy centers for working directly with their graves. It is still typical in many places to go and feast right at the Ancestor’s grave. If you can do that then I highly suggest it. Pick one Beloved Dead to honor each year when you follow this protocol unless you have a bunch of family members buried in the same place in which place you can have a complete fiesta!

With these points in mind, the next thing to do after selecting which of your Beloved Dead you will honor during this season is to decide where you would like to place the altar. When thinking about your altar you mostly just want to have a place where you can set up a picture, candle, glass of water, incense, and a bit of food without having it majorly disturbed. It is quite traditional to place these altars outside and if you have young children or cats that may well be the best choice.

Once you have established where your altar is going to go ahead and cleanse it. You can get directions on that here.

Elements to Include
Once again, you will be the best person to determine what you want your Ancestor Altar to look and feel like but my recommendation is that you start very simple and grow your altar in cooperation and relationship to the Ancestors. The essential elements you will need to include are:

  1. An image or object to represent the Beloved Dead you are working with. Pictures when available are often used but other objects can be as well. For instance, I have the strings from the last guitar my grandfather played as well as his guitar pick on my altar. This is also where the use of sugar skulls comes in to play. The custom is to make (or buy) a sugar skull for each Ancestor you wish to honor. You write the name of the ancestor on the foil strip that is on top of the sugar skull’s head to designate that is is the stand-in for that particular ancestor. This is also why some altars have lots and lots of sugar skulls. Once the Days of the Dead are over you can remove the sugar skulls and set them out around your home where the late autumn rains and snows will melt them into the ground ensuring you have a sweet year ahead.
  2. A candle – any kind of candle works although beeswax is a traditional choice. Nowadays in San Antonio, I mostly see the glass-encased paraffin candles.
  3. Water – a glass or bowl of water is a mainstay on an Ancestor Altar because water is seen as both refreshing to the ancestors and it also creates a barrier between the living and the dead so that nothing gets confused.
  4. Incense – Copal resin is the scent of choice for many of us in the Southwest and Mexico but choose something that is pleasing to you and if possible that has resonance with your Beloved Dead. The presence of incense carries over into the marigold flowers you often see on Dia de Los Muertos altars – these flowers are associated with the dead because they have a pungent and sharp odor that allows the dead to find their way to the altar. For in several traditional understandings our Beloved Dead does not have possession of the senses we do. In fact, the only sense that is left fully intact is their sense of smell which is what they use to find their offerings and places of honor. This is why having a scent is so very important.
  5. Offerings – Offerings for the Dead call upon what they enjoyed in life. Where I live we make a special bread called pan de muerto which is offered, but we also offer up elaborate food: usually I whip up a batch of drinks using my family’s secret margarita recipe, add chips, salsa, cerveza, enchiladas, and tamales. I might make a big pot of chili and I always give my maternal grandfather a can of Big Red as that was one of his favorite indulgences.Offerings of tobacco and alcohol are also common. Some schools of thought encourage such offerings to be left out, but I have found that as long as the individuals being honored did not have a destructive addiction to their favorite substance it is fine to include it on the altar.It is fine to create a small plate of goodies and put that on the altar and then eat the rest of them yourself. A bunch of my family members are buried in a nearby military base so I make their margaritas and serve them up graveside!
  6. Flowers – these can be plastic, paper, fresh or dried. Flowers are not absolutely necessary but they do add a nice touch!

Timing
A very frequently asked question I receive is on the timing of all of this — when does the altar go up? When does the altar get taken down? What are the days when the altar is most active?

And the answer is…it depends. It depends on who your Beloved Dead are and what they want, it depends on your lineage and heritage, your culture, and traditions, and it depends on how you are working with your Beloved Dead.

It also depends, quite practically, on how long it is going to take you to create your altar. If you are working with a lot of ancestors and making lots of offerings then you obviously will want to give yourself more time.

All of that said, there are certain times of the year when it is especially auspicious to connect with your Ancestors. Some of those times are:

October 31st – Halloween/Samhain in some European traditions and it also kicks off the three days celebration known collectively as Dia de Los Muertos. Some folks build their altars on this day. Some choose to begin altar construction a week before, and some choose to build their altars beginning the day after Michaelmas (the Feast of Archangel Michael) on September 29th. There is a lot of Halloween/Samhain folklore out there pertaining to the Dead, probably the best known is the hosting of a Dumb Supper.

November 1st – El Dia de Los Innocentes or the Day of the Children (Innocents) – this is when children who died are especially honored and remembered. The altars are full of toys, sweets, maybe a favorite blanket or stuffed animal during this time. Children lost in miscarriages, stillborn, and aborted children are also traditionally honored during this time. The altar would be up and active by this point in time.

November 2nd – Dia de Los Muertos/Dia de Muertos – Day of the Dead – this is the day when the Beloved Dead who are not children are honored – it is when we cook a lot of food! The altar is up and active at this point.

Once these days of the dead are over some folks take the altar down immediately. Some will leave the altar up past Thanksgiving (here in America) and some will leave the altar up through the Christmas season – which is also strongly associated with ghosts and the Beloved Dead, and take the altar down around Candlemas on February 2nd. Some (like our family) leave the altar up all year round because our relationship to our ancestors is ongoing.

Christmas/Yuletide Season – as previously mentioned, the days around Christmas and especially the Omen Days that follow Christmas are traditional times to make contact with ghosts and our Beloved Dead. Creating an altar during this season and/or refreshing an altar already built is a worthwhile endeavor.

Memorial Day – here in the U.S. the last Monday of the month of May is celebrated as Memorial Day and in the Deep South, it is known as Decoration Day. This is a traditional day when folks come together to clean up the cemeteries where their dead are buried, refresh their flowers and keep up their tombstones. It is also pretty typical for old time cemeteries to have their annual meeting on this day. Although it is in the thick of Spring this is a powerful time to contact your Beloved Dead, build or refresh their altars.

If you are working regularly with your Beloved Dead then the monthly upkeep of the altar is a good idea. You can work with the Dark Moons to clean off the altar and remove anything that does not belong and the Full Moon is a time to connect and commune with your Beloved Dead.

Communion
So, once you have your altar up and have decided to have an ongoing relationship with your Beloved Dead, then what? What do you do?

Traditionally we approach our ancestors the way we approach any Holy Helpers. We thank them for the goods and blessings in our lives and we ask them for whatever we have need of. In the case of our Beloved Dead we also welcome them, we feed them, we tell their stories to the younger generations, and we build an ongoing relationship with them. How do we do this? It depends on you and your family members, and what makes sense for you.

Simply the act of building your Beloved Dead a dedicated altar space and feeding them already lays a solid foundation for the relationship. You can speak to them, cook their favorite foods, play their favorite music, and write them a letter.

You can pray the prayers that they prayed in their honor and make special pilgrimages to the places that mattered to them. If you have household implements you inherited from your ancestors you may use them on a regular basis to further cement the relationship.

When my paternal grandmother passed away I did not receive much, but I did get a collection of the wooden spoons she cooked with (and the woman loved to cook) that I use whenever I cook. I always feel her presence with me during those times. The point is…these are your people, so you will have to decide what the best way of communing with them is.

Magic
Magic is deeply associated with our Ancestors and most of it incorporates divination of some kind. It is commonly believed that our Beloved Dead have the ability to “see” into the future in ways that we cannot. If you want to try your hand at this, here is one Ancestor-Informed Reading How-To I shared several years back.

Another very common way to work magically with our Beloved Dead is to appoint one (or more) of them as special protectors for the living. They typically line up to do this job, especially if they are being asked to protect and keep an eye out on children, ie, the Descendants. Seeking aid from your Beloved Dead in whatever situation needs help and support is also quite par for the course.

Typically this takes the form of making a petition, followed by an offering or a promise. As you work and get to know your Beloved Dead you will find that they will share other magics with you in due course.

However you choose to go about it, I wish you a happy, healthy, vibrant and wise relationship with your own Beloved Dead. Building altars to the Dead can be a fun and creative experience for you and your loved ones, not somber and grim duty. And as one friend from Mexico told me, don’t hold back. Have a party!

xo,
Bri

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.

Planning by Starlight

Divination and Dreams

W

orking with astrology in a practical manner that speaks directly to our lives is something we all want to be able to do. Astrology is not one of the most popular sacred arts without reason! And when it comes to figuring out how to work with astrology in a really practical manner, planning with it is right up there near the top of the list.

Unfortunately, this is also where the problems often begin. Almost as soon as we begin we can feel lost: ascendent this and ruling planet that, where is your sun and where is your moon, and what the heck does it mean that I have Mercury in the 8th house?! The problem is basic: we are suffering from information overload.

Specifically, there is too much information to process and a lack of clarity about how to discern the information that is most relevant to you and your goals, dreams, and desires.

It makes sense. The study of the stars has been with us for millennia and some version is found in every culture. Many of you know how central storytelling is to my work and I truly believe that we started telling stories as we gazed up at the glowing heavens in wonder, awe, and yes, sometimes fear.

So, we have a study that spans time and culture and has been around for thousands of years. Add to that, the basics of astrology as most of us practice it here in the 21st century developed the Western world, begins with 12 planets, 12 zodiacal constellations, and 12 houses that correlate to specific life areas and concerns.

Right off the bat, we are dealing with 36 terms and that is before we get into major aspects (like conjunctions or squares) and even before we talk about the way that the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) speak to each component!

So then, we try to take this information and plot it into our planners and calendars (and I don’t know about you but for me just making sure I know what appointments I have on tap for the next week can feel like an uphill slog).

No WONDER we experience information overload when it comes to planning by starlight. That smart and savvy intuitive voice within you might be telling you that there has to be a better way and you know what? That voice is right.

If the biggest challenge in Astro-planning is information overload then the solution is actually pretty simple. Aristotle mentioned it thousands of years ago…start with what is closest to you. Start with what you really want to focus on in the coming year.

See, this is the beautiful thing about astrology and actually all of the Sacred Arts. You don’t need to know all of it or everything, you just need to know enough to make a beginning and you can make a beginning anywhere.

I am going to give you my process for planning throughout these lessons, but in this first lesson, I am going to talk about how I initially approached Astro-planning when I was much younger. You might be tempted to think about this as a “beginning level” or baby steps, but I will tell you from my personal experience that I have talked to many seasoned and advanced Sacred Artists who have not incorporated these steps into their own practices and once they do they are pretty impressed with the results.

Planning By Starlight Part One

Before we get into the Astro-planning part I want to say a few things about planning in general. In my experience you will have the best success at planning if you do the following:

  • Understand that this is going to be a multi-day process – you won’t get all of your planning done in one day, I don’t get my planning or the year completed in a single week – I take a couple of months to do it.
  • Pick your planner(s) – I like both paper and digital planners. I use a Filofax for my paper plans and I use my icalendar for my digital plans. The ical (you could also use outlook or gcal) function is nice because it syncs to my phone and reminds me when I have an appointment. I can also share it with my husband’s calendar, and I can send invites to my clients and students for one on one sessions directly from the calendar. I like a paper version because sometimes weird things happen with digital calendars and if you have a hard copy you are set. If you want more options on planners I highly recommend JetPens. I also like to have my journal by my side.
  • Have your materials ready to go! Some of the things I like to have on hand include different colored pens, highlighters, mini-sticky notes, colored mechanical pencils, and my computer. Some people really get into stickers and inserts. Some folks like to have a color-coded legend. I like to have some good music on hand too! You might want to invest in a good lunar calendar and have on hand a resource page with the astrological highlights for the coming year – like this one.
  • Plot out any essential dates non-Astro dates first. These might be birthdays, anniversaries, national holidays, or known periods of time when you will be on vacation. If you have children, get their school calendar and plot out the days and times that they have off, special celebrations, etc. If you follow a specific religious or spiritual practice make sure that you mark out your Holy Days as well.

Now you are ready to start working with some Astro info! As I wrote above, you can start anywhere. And with astrology, the best place to start is with the really obvious stuff – the celestial bodies that you can actually see with your naked eye. Here are three approaches to help get you started:

Sun Sign ~ Most people’s beginning point with astrology is learning their sun sign. This is the zodiac sign that the sun was transiting during the time of your birth. The sun remains in each sign for about a month and because its motion is fairly regular those month-long periods more or less retain consistent start and end dates. When you are talking to someone and they say “Well, of course, I care about my work, I’m a Capricorn!” they are sharing their sun sign with you. These days you can literally google your sun sign if you happen not to know it. Identify your sun sign and work with that as your first (and possibly only) step in your planning adventure this year. Here is how to do it:

Let’s say that your sun sign is in Sagittarius. The first thing you can do is note when the sun will be in this sign in 2020 (November 21st – December 20th).

Mark out that time period on your calendar. Your birthday falls in this period so obviously, the star that day. Then, think about how you typically feel during this time of year.

Do you feel too busy and unable to really enjoy your solar return (ie, birthday)?

Do you feel like this is your favorite time to go on vacation?

Do you want to snuggle down and rest during this time of year?

Think and feel into years past and what your experiences have been. Jot down a few notes. Then ask yourself, what would I like my experience to be this year during this period?

Think about the sun. In traditional astrology, we consider it a planet and it is the planet of enlightenment and revelation. Practically speaking the light and warmth of the sun makes our lives possible. Think a bit about the sign of Sagittarius. Here is an article you can read on it if you don’t know where to begin. What are some of the major themes you associate with this sign? How might they play out in your practical planning?

See? Planning with your Sun Sign! Easy!

I see the Moon ~ After working with your sun sign you may want to turn your attention to the moon. Lunar-based calendars are some of the oldest and the Moon gives us a reliable way to tell that days are passing because this celestial body actually transforms over a 28 day lunar cycle – going from seeming to be completely invisible in the night sky (during the New Moon) to full and radiant, to vanishing once more.

There are many ways to incorporate the Moon into your Astro-planning projects but the easiest and best place to start in my opinion is with a lunar calendar. Get one for yourself – there are many to choose from – and treat it as a kind of journal. Each day notice what sign and phase the moon is in – this is a great way to familiarize yourself with the Zodiac too. Every day, jot down a few notes directly into your lunar calendar. These notes should describe how you felt on this day (because the moon speaks to our feelings), and record any places you felt stuck or deeply intuitive (because the moon speaks to both of those areas as well). After a couple of months of this, you will start to notice patterns and get a sense of what moons are really supportive for you and what moons might pose more of a challenge. You can then consider this information in your planning efforts.

You may also want to note in your calendars when the full and new moons are every month. These days have been honored since time beyond time and a good way to begin appreciating the stars and all they have to share is by setting aside a little time during these two points each month to honor and observe the heavens. Here are some ways to do that on the New Moon and here are some ways to do it on the Full Moon.

Pick a Planet, any Planet ~ So, you are now considering the sun and moon in your plans. This is great because you can look up in the sky at any time and connect to either. As you are looking at the night sky you might see that there are some other celestial bodies asking to be noticed. They might look like really bright stars but they are not, they are actually planets. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and sometimes Uranus can be seen with the naked eye in the nighttime sky at certain times of the year. (And a hot tip for beginning stargazers: the best time to look at the night sky is during a New Moon because the absence of the moonlight allows the stars to shine brighter).

Planning with the planets has many layers but again, we start really simple. And with the planets, the best place to start is in understanding how they work from a Sacred Arts perspective. Quite simply the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, and of course Earth) speak to practical concerns and issues – the stuff that again, is closest to us. Here is how to work this:

Perhaps this is the year when you want to draw the right partner into your life, or maybe you are getting married this year and stuck on finding the best date for your “I Do”! In that case, you might want to really pay attention to the planet, Venus.

Begin by asking if are there times of the year when she is visible and times when she is not?

Does she have a special day of the week associated with her? (She does, it is Friday).

Is she going to be retrograde (when the planet appears to move backward) at any point in the next year? Mark out those moments on your calendar.

Maybe this is a year where you really want to make some strong professional connections, publish something, or move. In that case, you might want to work with the planet Mercury – the mover and shaker of the zodiac. Consider the questions we asked for Venus and then go deeper. Mercury the planet resonated to the Roman God Mercury, the metal Mercury, the Ancient Greek Hermes, and on it goes. Find out about these figures and materials. What is their story? That might seem like an arcane approach but it is actually an approach that will allow you to plan all the better with this speedy planet.

If fitness, losing weight, winning any kind of contest or competition, or developing the discipline to attain mastery in a given area is your focus then you will want to work with Mars. Again, follow the same approach outlined above.

Just Start ~ Starting small, with one planet or one sign, or even one season, can often be the best way to make a start when it comes to planning by the stars because it guarantees that you WILL actually start.

And as you do this, do not, for the love of all that is holy, make it abstract. Begin by thinking concretely about the current year we are in. What has worked for you? What has not? Where did you feel like you had enough time and where did you feel like you did not? Having answers to these questions will set you up for excellent success as you look to the stars.

As you answer these questions you might find yourself thinking: yeah, yeah, Bri – this is great and it gives me a good sense of my personal preferences, but what about the big Astro-events I need to be aware of? How do I factor those into my plans? 

To which I say: hold your horses as that will be the topic of our next lesson!

magic, miracles: receive my lunar letters

ARRIVING on full moons each month.