Samhain/Halloween Rituals for Honoring the Dead

I've been a practicing witch for a good portion of my life, but throughout the years, I haven't always been great about celebrating every single Sabbat (pagan holiday). Halloween, however, has been the one exception. It's called Samhain (pronounced sow-en or sow-een) in the Celtic Wheel of the Year, which is what my spiritual practice is based around, and it's one of the holiest days of the year. Samhain actually marks the Celtic New Year, the final harvest before Earth truly descents into winter, darkness, and death. At this closing, ancient Celts (and modern Pagans) believe the boundaries between the living world and spirit realm are thinnest and our ancestors may walk among us or communicate with us more easily than any other time of year. 

The tradition of dressing up and wearing costumes comes from pagan practices of dressing as animals or ancestors to communicate with them and invoke their wisdom during this sacred time. Mexicans paint skulls on their faces to honor and invoke their dead loved ones during Dia de los Muertes. Christians honor their saints and celebrate All Saints Day.

Sami & Nana
Nana & I

The greatest loss I've experienced in my lifetime was my Nana, my paternal grandmother, when I was eleven. She lived with us and was essentially my mother as my own was not very present in my life. She was a devout Catholic and while I never really connected with Christianity for a multitude of reasons (even though we went to church regularly in my youth), something permanently severed for me after her death. I couldn't force myself to believe in a God who would take such a devout woman from us, a woman who was practically the center of my world. It just didn't make sense to me. It was around this time I began to explore other spiritual paths and I found one that centered on nature, that revered women, and that honored the loved ones who had passed on - without requiring belief of a higher power. That's an oversimplification of what paganism is, but it's what initially drew me to it.

My Samhain AltarMy Samhain altar.

Anyway, ever since I can remember, I've honored my Nana in some way on Halloween/Samhain, talking to her, updating her on my life, thanking her for the time we had together. Over the years, I have added other loved ones who have passed on into my rituals, visiting their graves when weather permits and talking to them too. If you'd like to incorporate honoring the dead into your life, here are a few suggestions:

  • Create an ancestor altar in your home with photos and keepsakes
  • Add photos and keepsakes of your ancestors and deceased loved ones to your "main" altar
  • Do a ritual at their grave (see mine below)
  • Can't get to their grave? Light a candle or incense for them at home and meditate, picturing them in your mind and catch them up on your life, ask for their guidance

Ancestor Altar at Our WeddingOur ancestor altar at our wedding.

What follows is the ritual I created in 2007 and have followed ever since. I tend to work with Greek and Celtic gods and goddesses as a way of directing and envisioning a particular energy or emotion, but please feel free to adapt this to your own spiritual practices, whether you're pagan or not, and whether you're doing this graveside or not. I do not believe anyone needs to define themself as a part of a larger religious group to be spiritual, nor do I believe any ritual needs to be followed to a T or done in a specific way. Honoring your dead is very personal and you should do what feels comfortable and right for you.

Samhain Graveside Ritual

Supplies Needed:

  • bowl or shaker of salt
  • incense
  • black or blue candle
  • blessed water (could be blessed by the full moon or infused with the powers of herbs or crystals or holy water)
  • pentacle

 The Ritual:

1. Stand in front of the grave and center yourself with three deep breaths. Then say:
Hecate, Goddess of Night, Magic, Mother of the Dead, hear my plea ~
Pass on my message of love
To those you have taken from me.
Let the elements dance around
The body of [loved one's name] buried in this ground.

2. Sprinkle salt around the grave, saying:
Earth ~
For the ground in which [name] rests,
That once ran beneath [his/her/their] feet,
I beseech thee ~

3. Light your incense and walk with it around the grave, saying:
Air ~
For the time we spent breathing in the same,
And the wisdom [name] passed on to me,
I beseech thee ~

4. Light your candle and walk with it around the grave, saying:
Fire ~
For the passion and love that burned within [name]'s heart,
And for the warmth they brought into my life that I will never forget,
I beseech thee ~

5. Sprinkle water around the grave, saying:
Water ~
For the many tears I have shed,
Each a memory I'll never forget,
I beseech thee ~

6. Now is a good time to share remembrances, thanks, things you wish you had said, and catch your loved one up on your life. It's okay to cry!

7. Once you're ready to say goodbye again, hold your pentacle to the sky or put it on the grave and say:
Spirit ~
Take my words with thee,
With Hecate's torches, let [name] see
All that [she/he/they] meant to me.
Let [him/her/them], for this night, roam free
Let them commune with me
Until the Witching Hour is known,
Then let [name] return to [his/her their] earthly home.
So mote it be!


Lead photo credit: Caroline Attwood via Unsplash