Honor your ancestors with an altar and feel your life transform into something good

An altar that honors your ancestors can make your life more meaningful and your heart more full.

And as a bonus, you may also discover relief from chronic distress, overwhelming grief, unexplained misfortune and the longing for what has no name.

Honoring ancestors with altars, shrines, prayers and rituals is certainly not new. For many thousands of years, indigenous and religious peoples across the globe have designated special spaces and places to express sacred connections to their roots.

It is only more recently that the practices of ancestor reverence have returned to our modern Western culture. Some of this renewed interest is due to the growing popularity of Family Constellations, an unconventional healing process that examines our connections to our larger family system and helps us to feel the blessings of the ancestors rather than carry their burdens.

Although not all constellation practitioners advise altars as part of a healing process, I am one of several practitioners who does. And the biennial North American Systemic Constellations Conference, which attracts Family and Systemic Constellation practitioners, health professionals, alternative practitioners, business and organization coaches, educators, community and political activists and others interested in alternative work, has for years constructed some kind of altar as a central and important part of its gathering.

Family Constellations were developed in Germany about 30 years ago by Bert Hellinger, a psychotherapist, philosopher, mystic and former Roman Catholic priest who lived with the Zulus in Africa for many years and learned their traditions of ancestor reverence. Sometimes known as Systemic Constellation Work or Systemic Constellations, its use is has been warmly embraced in Europe, Russia and Latin America and throughout the world, with exciting innovations developed according to the culture and the creativity of the practitioner.

During a Family Constellations session, which typically takes place in a group setting, a person identifies a personal issue and selects group members to represent certain family members and pertinent elements in the group space.

The representatives are positioned in open space by the person seeking help; the positioning reveals the dynamics — both hidden and evident — within the family system.

The facilitator repositions the family members to restore respect, acknowledgement and love, with particular attention given to those who’ve been excluded or forgotten. As reconciliation is achieved, the genuine love in a family begins to flow. Each person who attends a session experiences the effects of this change, which they find is often deeper and more profound in comparison to traditional talk psychotherapy.

I often recommend clients construct altars at home to deepen connections with their roots. This altar is designed to raise the conscious intention to welcome the ancestors’ presence, support and guidance in everyday life.

This assignment may take place before or after the person begins sessions in Family Constellations or groups to affirm the connection with the old ones of the family. At other times, a person may create an altar on his, her or their own, without having attended a session, but part of a coaching or healing assignment.

Here are the instructions that I give:

Identify a place in your home where the ancestors can remind you of their presence.

You may select a place that is private, accessible to only you or your closest family members, or decide to have your altar arranged in a more prominent area in the home, where friends, guests and others can view it.

Cleanse the space both physically and energetically.

You will want to physically clean the space so it’s cleared of dust and dirt; any other items, such as table coverings, should be laundered and clean as well. You may cleanse the space energetically with a prayer, song or a ritual — whatever feels sacred and important for you.

Place items, such as photographs and family mementos, which remind you of your forebears.

Be creative with stones, marbles, shells, crystals or other objects if you don’t have photos or actual mementos. You may add plants, candles, banners, flags or objects of an ancestral country, incense or whatever else is meaningful for you.

Pay attention to your altar.

This may be a periodic casual pause in front of the altar as you take a breath, or you may decide to assign yourself a special time of quiet meditation, morning or evening, to sit with your altar and to receive inspiration. Tend to your altar, keeping it clean and free of dust and freshening the space and items as needed.

In some traditions, fruit, candy or flowers are added for the deceased to enjoy, along with items that may have been relished in life, such as cigars or special foods. Through the years, I’ve observed and collected many stories of peace and healing resulting from the use of this process.

Although these actions may seem simple, they can make very big differences in people’s worlds.

Leonard sought relief from episodes of night sweats and repetitious dreams with themes of fear. Sober for nearly 20 years, thanks to his regular involvement with Alcoholics Anonymous, he had succeeded in making a good life, with many friends, active volunteer work and the ownership of a successful small business. Yet he suffered with chronic depression despite his support system and involvement with traditional talk psychotherapy.

His family had a history of loss and hardship. His great-grandfather escaped the pogroms of Russia at the turn of the 20th century to immigrate to the United States. The great-grandfather’s son financially supported the extended family during the Great Depression. Some Jewish relatives died in The Holocaust, and two uncles died in military service to the United States during World War II.

To make his altar, Leonard arranged several family photos on a book shelf with a wooden carving of a weeping man. I suggested he say these words during his meditation:

As months passed, Leonard noticed that the night sweats greatly diminished. He slept more easily and became more comfortable with feelings of loss. For years, he avoided memorial prayers at his synagogue because he could not sit calmly. He attended an observance after our sessions and sobbed for a long time.

“It felt healing,” he reported. “It was genuine grief — not self pity, not victimization, but grief. It felt good to mourn.”

When creating an altar, it is important to represent and honor the whole family system, which may included miscarried, aborted and stillborn children and others who have been estranged or forgotten.

Sharon, for example, gave her daughter up for adoption 40 years ago after becoming unexpectedly pregnant as a young woman. She did not have contact with the daughter but kept informed about her daughter’s life and family through the years. Finally, she found a photo of her adult daughter online and printed and framed it. After displaying the picture on her altar in her living room, she has felt a “calming” within.

People often question how to honor forebears who have been difficult, abusive or controlling. Yet when we carry unresolved issues from our ancestors, we often unconsciously carry their pain until we find ways to connect with them. In these cases, honoring is more akin to recognizing both the pain and the forebear’s gift — that of life — which is passed to the next generation.

Julia, for instance, had struggled for years with mixed feelings after her father died. Outwardly genial and accommodating and a respected leader in the community, the father ruled the family “like a tyrant” and had been especially controlling of Julia’s life choices as a young woman.

After several conversations about her relationship with her father, Julia collected a basket of pine cones, because pine cones and evergreen trees had a special meaning in her larger family. She then made a trip to the cemetery where her father was buried in the family plot. There, she presented the pine cones as gifts for her ancestors. She improvised a prayer that honored her father, then bowed deeply in front of his grave. Afterward, much of the grief and anger was lifted.

These and numerous others have benefited from the Family Constellations process. When we allow ourselves to feel the pain of the past, we are taking the first step toward true healing.

About the author

Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is a psychotherapist, board-certified psychodrama trainer and certified constellations facilitator and trainer in private practice in Lancaster, Pa. She has presented at many state and national conferences, including the 2011, 2015 and 2017 North American Systemic Constellations Conferences. She is the co-author of Integrating Psychodrama and Systemic Constellation Work: New Directions for Action Methods, Mind-Body Therapies and Energy Healing and Healing Eating Disorders with Psychodrama and Other Action Methods: Beyond the Silence and the Fury and author of Show and Tell Psychodrama: Skills for Therapists, Coaches, Teachers, Leaders. Learn more about Karen and her books, personal growth groups and training programs here.

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Founder of the Lancaster School of Psychodrama and Experiential Psychotherapies and author of books on psychodrama, embodied learning and creativity.

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Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP

Founder of the Lancaster School of Psychodrama and Experiential Psychotherapies and author of books on psychodrama, embodied learning and creativity.