Many modern Pagans include ancestor worship as part of their Samhain celebrations -- it's not out of the ordinary to meet members of the Pagan community who can recite their genealogy back ten or more generations. In addition, because it's common for Pagans today to view death not as ending but as the beginning of the next phase of spiritual development, grave rubbings are popular with many Pagans. It's great to use those of your own relatives and family members, but if you find a headstone that strikes you as interesting, there's nothing wrong with making a rubbing from it.
*NOTE: We recognize that some people feel grave rubbings are destructive no matter what precautions you may take. However, because there are also graveyard experts who say that a carefully done grave rubbing should do no damage to a headstone in good condition, we will continue to include this article here on the site. Use your own best judgment, and if you are opposed to the creation of grave rubbings, then don't do it.
It's important to keep in mind that if you're tromping about a cemetery, you should be respectful. Not only of the people who are lying there, but also of those living beings who may happen to come along while you're there. There's nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but please make an effort not to disturb someone who may be grieving. Not everyone views death in the same way, so while your family may accept it as part of nature's cycle, another family might be overcome by a sense of loss. Also, bear in mind that many cemeteries are private property. Before wandering into them, check to see if you need to get permission. If you do, be sure to get it before you end up trespassing.
Headstone rubbings are a unique way of preserving the past and getting some pretty neat decor out of it as well. While doing a rubbing usually doesn't usually cause damage to headstones, particularly newer ones, there are certain precautions that should be taken. If a stone is worn or crumbling, pass on it. Rubbing an already-damaged stone can cause it to flake and chip to the point where it's irreparable. Instead, choose stones which are in good condition - the best results come from either polished granite stones or solid slate markers.
You'll need lightweight paper (white butcher paper works nicely, but you can experiment with other colors as well), a large crayon (preferably black, but again, feel free to try new stuff) or rubbing wax, masking tape, and a soft-bristled paintbrush to clear debris off the stone. You might also want to take a cardboard tube with you to store your rubbings for transport home. I also like to bring a notepad and pencil to jot down notes about the cemetery and the person whose headstone I've rubbed. A pair of garden scissors can be helpful for trimming off weeds at the base of the stone.
Once you've chosen your stone, brush it off lightly with your paintbrush. You'd be surprised how much dust and organic material can accumulate in the carvings, to say nothing of bird poop. Once it's cleaned off, use the masking tape to keep the paper in place over the area you wish to rub. Try to extend the paper past the top and sides of the stone - that way you won't get random crayon marks on the stone itself.
Start your rubbing by filling in the outer edges of the carved area. This will give you a point to work towards. Once you've done that, move to the center and begin working outward, back towards your edges. Use the flattest surface of the crayon or wax, and make light, even strokes. If it looks like your rubbing isn't showing up well, don't worry. You can go back and add more definition later. Keep your strokes uniform to prevent variations in coloring. As you do your rubbing, you may want to offer a small prayer or blessing to the person whose stone you are using.
After you're done, step back and look at the rubbing from a distance. Chances are that by viewing it from a few steps away, you'll notice some irregularities in the shading or detail. Go back and fix them, without putting too much pressure on the stone. When you're satisfied with the result, carefully remove all the tape. Be sure to clean up stray bits of paper or other garbage. Roll your rubbing up and place it in your tube for safekeeping.
When you get it home, matte and frame your work and hang it up on your wall. A collection of grave rubbings is a good conversation starter all year long, but particularly at Samhain. If you have access to the gravestones of your ancestors, a wall of framed rubbings can become the perfect altar to your heritage.
In many Pagan traditions, the ancestors are honored, especially at Samhain. This Sabbat, after all, is the night when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its most fragile. By setting up an ancestor shrine or altar, you can honor the people of your bloodline -- your kinfolk and clansmen who have helped to shape the person you are. This altar or shrine can be set up just for the Samhain season, or you can leave it up all year long for meditation and rituals. If you've got the room, it's nice to use an entire table for this shrine, but if space is an issue, you can create it in a corner of your dresser top, on a shelf, or on the mantle over your fireplace. Regardless, put it in a place where it can be left undisturbed, so that the spirits of your ancestors may gather there, and you can take time to meditate and honor them without having to move stuff around every time someone needs to use the table. Also, bear in mind that you can honor anyone you like in this shrine. Someone doesn't have to be a blood relative to be part of our spiritual ancestry.
First, do a physical cleaning of the space. After all, you wouldn't invite Aunt Gertrude to sit in a dirty chair, would you? Dust the table top or shelf and clear it of any items that are not related to your shrine. If you like, you can consecrate the space as sacred, by saying something like: I dedicate this space to those whose blood runs through me. My fathers and mothers, my guides and guardians, and those whose spirits helped to shape me. As you do this, smudge the area with sage or sweetgrass, or asperge with consecrated water. If your tradition requires it, you may wish to consecrate the space with all four elements. Finally, add an altar cloth of some sort to help welcome the ancestors. In some Eastern religions, a red cloth is always used. In some Celtic-based paths, it is believed that a fringe on the altar cloth helps tie your spirit to those of your ancestors. If you have time before Samhain, you might want to make an Ancestor Altar Cloth.
There are different types of ancestors, and which ones you choose to include are up to you. There are our blood ancestors, who are the people from whom we directly descend--parents, grandparents, etc. There are also archetypical ancestors, who represent the place that our clan and family came from. Some people also choose to honor the ancestors of the land--the spirits of the place you are now--as a way of thanking them. Finally, there are our spiritual ancestors--those who we may not be tied to by blood or marriage, but who we claim as family nonetheless. Start by selecting photos of your ancestors. Choose pictures that have meaning for you-- and if the photos happen to have the living in them as well as the dead, that's okay. Arrange the photos on your altar so that you can see all of them at once. If you don't have a photo to represent an ancestor, you can use an item that belonged to him or her. If you're placing someone on your altar who lived prior to the mid-1800s, chances are good there's no photograph existing. Instead, use an item that may have been the person's -- a piece of jewelry, a dish that's part of your family heirloom set, a family Bible, etc. You can also use symbols of your ancestors. If your family is from Scotland, you can use a kilt pin or a length of plaid to represent your clan. If you come from a family of craftsmen, use an item designed or created to symbolize your family's artisanship. Finally, you can add a genealogy sheet or family tree to the shrine. If you have in your possession the ashes of a departed loved one, add those as well. Once you have everything in your shrine that represents your ancestors, consider adding a few other items. Some people like to add votive candles, so they can light them while meditating. You may wish to add a cauldron or cup to symbolize the womb of the Earth Mother. You can also add a symbol of your spirituality -- a pentagram, ankh, or some other representation of your beliefs. Some people leave food offerings on their altars as well, so that their ancestors can partake of a meal with the family. Use the altar when you perform a Samhain ancestor meditation or a ritual to honor the ancestors.
Your Book of Shadows can be as simple as a spiral notebook or a manila folder stuffed with notes, or as elaborate as an oversized leather-bound, jewel-encrusted tome. Of course, some people go the electronic route: a special folder on their pc desktop, all the way to a complex database system with cross references and collating capabilities.
I am a computer geek, so it's not too hard to admit that I do have the whole database thing (I prefer Filemaker Pro for Mac) set up for easy reference, but when it comes to my BOS, nothing beats good ol' pen and pear. I love the tactile sensation of turning pages and feeling the books grow as the years fall away. On a practical note - magical energy (aka electromagnetic energy) tends to disturb the operation of many electronics, so the last thing I want inside my magic circle is my iPad.
The more you love something, the more energy it accumulates, so make your Book of Shadows something that you will be proud to own. A spiral notebook or a professionally bound book is nice - but most witches I know prefer the ability to move the pages around. Consider these alternatives:
- A Scrapbook album is a great starting point. They come in many different sizes, textures, and designs. Walk through any craft store and browse the scrapbook aisle and the possibilities for embellishment and decoration will make you dizzy!
- Disc-bound notebooks offer the ability to reposition pages.
- Nothing wrong with the plain old three ring binder.