Spirit house, what are they?

Spirit House. Shrine. Family Altar. No matter what you call it they all have the same purpose. A focal point for a deity and/or ancestors and ways to remember and honor them.  A spirit house of old might look very different than one today, and yet, the concept is very much the same.  

In The Old Days

In the old days, a family might have a shrine set up to honor the Deity of their village. Or maybe their lineage dictates their God or Goddess.  Ancient Romans honored their family spirit with a lararium, or cupboard, that served as a home or altar space.  In Southeastern Asain countries Spirit houses were (and still are)  roofed structures that house images or statues of people or animals. In parts of Africa, they have Spirit Huts. Offerings are then left for the spirits such as candles or flowers or food, whatever pleases that particular spirit. 

An example of a Roman Lararium https://sites.google.com/site/religioninancientrome/home/household-deities
A Spirit Hut from Livingstonia, Malawi, c. 1910 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_house
Spirit House
Cambodian style spirit houses – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_house

Alaska

When I lived in Alaska many years ago I visited a yet still active burial site of Russian Orthodoxy and Alaska Native Athabascan heritage. Russian missionaries arrived in the area around 1830 and the Native culture blended with them to become one. Amidst that blending of cultures the Native way of cremating their dead gave way to burial as the Russian Orthodox traditionally did.  “When a body is first buried, a blanket is placed over the grave to warm and comfort the soul as it transitions to the next work.

Forty days later, the spirit box is placed over the blanket and family members paint it in colors that have represented their name for generations. But unlike in many cemeteries throughout the contiguous United States, the memorial is not kept up. In keeping with Athabascan tradition, which says that that which is taken from the Earth must be allowed to return, the spirit houses are left to decay and crumble over the years.”(1)  

Spirit House
An array of different styles and colors. The more elaborate the house indicated the wealth of the deceased. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/burial-spirit-houses#:~:text=Nicholas%20Orthodox%20Church%20in%20Eklutna,of%20the%20Eklutna%20Historical%20Park.

Feeling Grounded

I remember seeing these spirit houses and I was fascinated! Coming from a family of strong cremation beliefs I found it comforting to have somewhere to honor my ancestors. Don’t get me wrong, I am still firm in my cremation decisions, but I have watched some family lost in their own grief because they don’t have a place to feel grounded with their lost loved ones as you traditionally would with a cemetery.  

Another pull I had to spirit houses helped define my Pagan ways in that I wanted a place to just be. A space I could focus. A place that held my magical thoughts and beliefs.  At first, it started outside in the yard.  I created this lovely little spot with sage, thyme in front of a lilac bush. I placed my Celtic cross, my stones, all of my goodies in this spot.  It was full of comforting energy and a place I could stare at and it brought me peace.  Then, sadly, we had to move.

Next, I picked a spot in our new yard, and I rebuilt.  I planted, and dug, and laid stones and pavers. My wife helped me build a privacy wall and lay down gravel. We picked out a bench and a water feature.  I was determined to recreate my magical space.  Then, my father got cancer and over a few years everything changed. 

Our First Spirit House

After my Dad moved onto his next journey, after much grief and imbalance in my world, I needed to ground.  My wife and mom bought me my Goddess statue for my birthday.  Its a triple Goddess statue that represents the Maiden, Mother, and Crone.  I loved it so much! But I didn’t have a special place for it.  I didn’t have a house, or connection, nothing that was just mine.  So, I asked my wife to build them a house.

I thought long and hard about the Spirit houses in Eklutna, and I thought about the sacred spaces I had created before, and we decided to make something that could go with me! Little did we know it was the beginning of something big!  I have since created one for both of our daughters and we are busy creating more.  

My birthday gift from my wife and mother which inspired my very first spirit house.

It makes my heart happy to be a part of such a deep connective spiritual creation for others. For most of us, we have some sort of spiritual need.  Whether you be Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, or Agnostic. Sometimes it’s the need for cremated remains to sit. Other times it’s a place for you to become one with your chosen deity.  Sometimes it’s a place to put that little tiny pine cone your grandchild gave you as a present because they loved it so much and they want to share that love. You can honor it with a Family Altar. No matter the point, it’s yours.

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