Love Doesn’t Stop at the Grave: Ancestor Veneration in Appalachia

DNA is a tricky and confusing thing. It’s also very powerful. You contain the DNA of millions of Ancestors. No one has the same DNA as you do, but there is still a continuous Living River running through your veins, connecting you to every individual, living and dead.

In today’s age, the majority of people do not hear from their extended family, especially their grandparents much, unless it’s a holiday, birthday, wedding, funeral. And when they do, it’s through FaceTime, Skype, or Facebook. Most of the people I’ve done Bone Readings for can’t name their Ancestors past their great grandparents, if that far. Everybody’s so busy running around getting the latest bullshit and making money, eyes glued to their phones, and their hands tied to the wheel of a car to see the glorious thing that is family. No one sits and talks anymore over coffee with their mamaw, or breaks beans with papaw.

Most suggest meditation to contact your Ancestors, but I don’t meditate much. I do what the I call pondering. It’s an odd word, but I’ve found most of my answers just sitting outside thinking. Which I guess is a form of meditation. The Grannies did this often. It strengthens the mind, and when the mind is strong so is our ability to open to the Spirits at will. I’m probably rambling and making no sense, but it sounds logical to me. Letting the mind wonder, in my thought, is a way of untangling it. Cause how else do we explain the thoughts that fly by behind our eye balls?

It’s never to late to fix what was broken.

Some people who come to me are either afraid of what their Ancestors will say or have no idea who it is that comes through. Some have bad family history often filled with addictions, abuse, and absence. But Love doesn’t stop at the grave. And neither does healing. I’ve also had many adopted clients wonder on who came through, and with each one there was a mixture of biological and adoptive ancestors that came.

So first thing you need to do, to build a relationship with your Ancestors, is to first remember and connect with the ones you knew in life (this is what is termed your Beloved Dead), from there you will be introduced over time. Learn the stories of your Ancestors, as far back and you can go.

For generations, Appalachians held a tradition of preparing the dead for burial. As they weren’t able to be embalmed due to the isolation in the mountains, they were buried either the next day or the day after that. If it was winter and the ground was too hard to dig, the body was placed in a box outside to keep until spring. The body (if being buried) was placed flat on the body board, which was passed down in the family and held the body of each person in the family who’d passed. Bones may need to be broken to lay it flat, or some parts soaked in warm water to ease them down.

Four handfuls of salt were placed in a bowl on the chest to keep them from having spasms or jerking up. The chest and feet were tied to the board and keep the same from happening. The body was covered in wildflowers, herbs and weeds to honor them and also cover the smell. Then the saining too place, done by the oldest woman in the home. A candle is passed out the body three times with prayers and songs.

Saining/body boards were often used to honor the Ancestors, since all of them had “slept” upon it. You’d sit next to the board with a candle and just talk to them. This was back when folks live in small shacks and didn’t have room for altars. Not even sure if they’d know what it was. They only knew that this board was a connection to those before them. That’s all they needed. My family’s saining board is long gone, last I saw it used was when I was real little. Maybe about four.

So do your best to keep with tradition. They are ties to the past years and the past hands that saw them through as well. Song that gospel song mamaw loved. Doesn’t matter if your Christian or not. Mamaw loved it, and therefore it’s a connection to her. A big favorite in my family is the song “Down to the River to Pray.” Veneration doesn’t have to be a chore, it shouldn’t be. Make it fun and filling for you and them. This will also help you remember how they were more.

No one wants to be forgotten

My mamaw Hopson was married by the age of 13, had four girls and two boys, one of which was stillborn. She was raised in the mountains of North Carolina, she’d go to “May day dances” on May 1st in these hills, and she spent her last few years on Mount Mitchell. She was the sweetest soul, always giving something to those who visited her, making biscuits from scratch: she’d already have a batch started by the time we pulled into to her trailers drive way on the mountain. She’d tell us old family stories like Lick Paw, Lick Paw, Come in Tom; or Shinny Eyes and Bloody Bones. I may share them sometime with you. Maybe at the end of this post. We’ll see.

The land at my mamaw Hopson’s. The willow is ancient; standing tall long before I was born

My papaw Trivett was a stubborn, good hearted, baptist preacher. Unlike other men around here, he was able to dream true and had the Sight. It was mostly the women who inherited these gifts; the men were mostly healers. And he could heal alright. He healed fevers and sickness with eggs, could wipe a wort off with a rag and a prayer. He could draw the fire from a burn, as the old saying says a man who never met his father could do just that.

His daddy, Gerny Trivett, was a bad alcoholic. He passed away when my papaw was a toddler. Family stories say he was hit by a train after he passed out on some tracks. I recently found his death certificate via and it says he had a heart attack. Still a mystery. Come to find out, my papaw’s father was buried in the cemetery on the other side of the trees that spread about my papaw’s backyard. He didn’t even know it. He was that close to his father he never met.

The family stories keep their characters alive. I have a few great aunts (long gone) who were, well, prostitutes as the stories go. Another was schizophrenic and left by her children to die in a home. I haven’t braved myself to venture towards her.

Appalachians tend the stories, the graves, and the blood.

In Appalachia, there’s a cultural tradition to visit the graves of the Ancestors once a year, to mow the grass, pull the weeds and decorate it. Folks leave offerings of liquor, cigarettes/cigars, beer, toys for the children who passed, American flags, and even plates of food from the potluck held before hand.

The best time is during the summer and fall. Go to any graveyard in the south and you’ll see the majority of the graves are tended to, some yards more flamboyant with flowers than others. My family tends to each grave, ancestor or not. If we have flowers left over, we’ll place them on the graves with weather-worn headstones with no name. We’ll stand their and wonder: “Who were they? What did they achieve? Who did they leave behind?” And we’ll pray for them.

This was the best time to talk to the Beloved Dead, although we do it almost every day. We always remember our roots. Before this current generation gap, listening and learning the family stories and legends wasn’t that hard. But now, very few people have elders to talk to in order to record this information. The stories of my papaw Pritchard having the trouble with a witch will definitely be passed down, as well as the tale of Shiny eyes and Bloody bones.

Most people don’t know the first step in honoring the dead, which is simple: remember them. Speak their names. Whether you feel them or not, call their names out and say you remember. No one wants to die and have the world forget them. Their world was their family and is still through their descendants. Just the simple act of calling their name and wondering with an empty heart what they were like honors them. I never knew my ancestors, but I still hold them within me. I don’t know their character, but I can feel their strength gather in my bones. I have the temper of my Irish Grannies, the stubbornness of my German grandfathers, the strength and pride of my Cherokee people, and the fight-and-might of my African Ancestors.

Set a place. Mark your life with their names. Follow their traditions.

The most simple act of remembering our roots is to start with what you know. Make an altar to your Ancestors and Beloved Dead, beginning with the latter. The altar can be a bookshelf, side table, or a whole wall complete with tables and wall-pictures of them.

Although traditions vary, in Appalachia it’s pretty simple. White table cloth (I prefer doilies when I use a table top), glasses of water, candles, and a bible (if most of them were religious). Since most of my grannies and some grandfathers practiced these magics, I have dried rosemary, yarrow, lavender, etc. on the altar. I have items and photos of theirs, old wallets, jewelry, half used cologne/perfume bottles they wore, etc.

One thing I was always taught is to never have photos of the living, or items from a living person, on the altar. No photos of the whole family, of you and papaw etc. Only photos of the dead. It’s believed to do so will draw you closer to that realm and may lead you to death. While I’m skeptical of it, I was raised in a superstitious household, so I rather not tempt it. Ya know. Just in case.

Always refresh your offerings to them. If you come from poverty like I do, they will understand that two pieces of bread can make the difference between you eating and not. In these cases, water and candles lit are good enough. I honor my Ancestors every Sunday, so this is when I change out old offerings and, if I can, replace them. I also change the water or liquor I left out the previous week. I also leave them Coca-Cola.

When you refresh the water, wash the glasses as well. And the dish that served the food. If you wouldn’t eat or drink out of it then, neither would they. This is also when I give the smokers their cigars and cigarettes. This is also the time that you speak with them. Tell them your troubles, your achievements, tell them about work and the kids.

There’s no more need to sit silently and miss them cause they’re gone. Because they’re not. They are more active in our lives then we think they are, often telling us to “take a different way to work” or “don’t go to that store today”. And more often than not, it’s because something bad is going to happen on that road or in that shop that’ll make the news that night. You could be robbed, shot, hit, anything.

So talk to them. Remember where they are, that they’re dead and not coming back (well to you anyway). Do not try to use this to replace them actually being here. Because they’re gone for a reason.

One thing I do want to address: They are not simply there to help you in Hoodoo. Too many people today are using Ancestors like the New Age movement “uses” gods. They want this or that, often getting needs mixed with wants, thinking if they give granddaddy a shot of brandy and a cigarette he’ll bring you someone to love. SHIT DONT WORK LIEK THAT. This is not like petitioning a saint or other form of spirit. It’s not “business” or a trade deal. This is your family. If you wouldn’t treat your mama like that, don’t do them that way.

Remember they were from a different time where children with attitude, those who “expected” handouts and help without giving back or showing respect got their asses whooped. Just cause they dead don’t mean they can’t get mad at you and punish you somehow. “Mamaw wouldn’t do that”. You wana bet? Didn’t think so. So don’t come into this relationship with one goal in mind of getting help with your works. If that’s all you’re after, go on somewhere else.

I love my Ancestors to the moon and back. I feel them in my blood and bones, and it’s that pride that helps me stand strong and brace anything life throws my way. I could talk about them for hours, because it’s not just history or stories. It’s my stories and history literally swimming in my blood and etched into the grain of my bones. It knocks around my skull and sleeps in my heart.

Remember to have protection when doing this as well. Some spirits will gladly impersonate as one of your kin just to get offerings and taste from the living world. Call them on by the god of your family. As the majority of mine are baptists, I call up my Ancestors in the Name of the Most High God. I command that only those that lived in the blood and bones of my family may come to me. Consecrate their altar with these commands so only those rightful Ancestors may partake at the altar.

Build the Temple of your Blood

So build them an altar, one all their own, and begin your relationship. This is where you will meet them and speak with them, worship with them and pray for them. Work with them to heal generational wounds and addictions that you have in yourself, known or unknown. For more on that read When Your Ancestors Are A**holes by Mat Auryn. I would address it myself, but this post is extensive as it is already.

Keep these things in mind: be respectful, remember them, and do it for the right reasons. Set a certain day each week to honor them, honor them on birthdays and passing days, on days they came to America, or graduated college. Keep them in your heart not as a memory, but as the company you keep in your blood, in the living river of your veins. Follow the land they walked on, visit their childhood homes, learn about the times they lived in. Walk where they walked as well. It’s interesting to know that a hundred years ago, one of my great grandparents walked the same streets downtown as I do. And theirs before that. And so on before the buildings were stood and the trees cut and the land leveled.

Ancestor Veneration is a powerful thing in Appalachia. As human beings our number one natural need is community. Family. The second is Tradition and Familiarity. But unknown to most and ignored by some, Love doesn’t stop at the grave. And neither do ass whoopin’s for that matter so mind your mouth and be respectful. Ha!

After months of honoring them, you will see a change in your life, in your dealings with the immediate family and other relatives. This is your history book. They began it, you must continue it. I highly recommend you make an account on You’ll be surprised at how close your Ancestors really are.

Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

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