Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Dumb Supper

“And in one house they could see an old grandfather mummy being taken out of a closet and put in the place of honor at the head of the table, with food set before him. And the members of the family sat down to their evening meal and lifted their glasses and drank to the dead one seated there, all dust and dry silence…”
~ Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree, 1972

Tonight is Halloween, All Hallows Evening, a holiday also known as Samhain. Like my ancient forebears, my family and I began to practice the ritual of the Dumb Supper seven years ago, which is a dinner set for both the living and the dead. It can be as simple or elaborate as your circumstances require, but it is a rewarding way to honor the dead and keep their memories alive. This formal supper can be done on any night between October thirty-first and November third.
For the simplest form you can add an extra place setting at dinner and feed that plate first, welcoming in the weary travelers from the other world and offering them the hospitality with a place to sit at your table. Allow them an evening of humanity on the night when the overlapping worlds bleed through. It’s called a Dumb Supper, which means Silent Supper. It is not a place to chit chat about the workday or chores that need to be done as such mundane life can keep the timid dead who no longer recognize the world-as-is away.
Hold supper sacred and keep all conversation minimal, and to the experience at hand. It does not have to be solemn or somber event. There was much giggling on our end last year when we felt an overwhelming cry of “Taters!” erupt from our invited ethereal guests as the food was placed out. Some readings will tell you the night must be silent, and that may have been true in a time when silence was possible but for the scraping of forks and howling of the wind. But in this day, when our homes are filled with the not-so-quiet hum and thrum of electronics, appliances, traffic and plumbing, I tend to worry that those noises will keep the dead at bay.
We switch things up every year, with some kind of music that might appeal to our invited guests. Last year we listened to the radio drama of Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree, which we will continue this year. It was a special treat that brought in much more spirit energy than ever before. It seemed a familiar thing that pulled them in and the emotional sensation that filled our home was one of a joyous family reunion.
For our ritual, we set a chair at the head of the table called the Spirit Chair and we shroud it in black fabric and clothing. No human will sit in that chair tonight. The Spirit Chair is the setting for all spirits who wander the night and wish no harm, but wish a moment of hospitality.
Beyond that, there is a chair for each of us, and for the spirit we are personally inviting to the table. We write the name of the spirit who is our invited guest on a piece of paper and place it beneath their plate. If you do not have a particular name you wish to invoke, you may simply write the ancestors of your name, your bloodline, your spiritual heart, etc.
For my purposes, I place my guest’s chair across from me, so that I may gaze into the space there, like divination, during the meal. Ultimately, where you place them is not important. What is important is that you serve the Spirit Chair first, your invited guests next, and then yourself. It’s the intention of hospitality that matters most.
At this time of year, we use the dumb supper to open a space for the living and dead to dine together. I think of the table and meal like a reflection, a photo-negative image of your mundane life. To that end, the place setting is prepared the opposite of however you would normally set the table. Do you usually put forks on the left and water glass on the right? Reverse them.
Place a candle on the plate for the Spirit Chair and a tea light on the center of the plate for each invited guest. At the beginning of the meal, stand behind the Spirit Chair and invite your ancestors to come and dine with you. I even go so far as to open the front door and invite them into my home, literally. Light the candle on the Spirit plate. Pour a libation into the cup at the head of the table and call in the Ancestors:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, bid you welcome and entrance.
This is how you open the door for your personal guests to step in. Next, light the candles on your invited guests’ plates and call them in by name.
When you serve the meal, begin with the dessert course. The meal itself is also a reflected image of the meal the dead would remember. Start with the dessert course and sit down to enjoy it. Next, serve the main course, then the sides. Then serve the soup and salad, followed by any appetizers and pre-dinner cocktails. You should structure your meal in a way that seems appropriate to you, your heritage and your family traditions- just backwards from whatever that might be. What foods will you serve? I like to make items that were meaningful to my family as well as items I find that hearken to the cultural heritage I am slowly discovering in my genealogical research.
During each pause in courses, while we are eating, I focus on the space across from me and the multiple sensory impressions I receive. I always invite my Great-Grandma to dine with me and have been chastised for not salting her meatballs or being stingy on the chocolate cake. I have also heard the gentle trebling of her voice and felt the cool paper of her skin as our hands brushed while I was serving her. I have found myself responding to an unspoken request from her spirit for another napkin. On this night, they can allow themselves the human moments they had in life and we can be reminded of them; Elsie did often need an extra napkin.
When the meal is finished, we take a few moments and express our gratitude to those who came and supped with us. When the evening feels over, I thank my guest for coming and I open the front door, wishing them a safe journey for the rest of their evening. I tell them to leave as they will (in case they’re not done yet). I will let the ancestral tea lights burn out on their plates.
I thank the ancestors for dining with us and I snuff out the candle on the Spirit Chair. I carry the water from the Spirit cup and pour it on the ground outside:
To those who have gone before,
To those whose names live in our hearts and dance upon our lips,
To those whose names have been lost in the sea of time,
To those whose bones lie above and below the earth,
To those whose ashes have travelled on the winds,
We, the living, thank you for dining with us.
                        We, the living, wish you safe travels.
Ideally, the food would also be disposed of sacredly, either burned, buried or, traditionally, placed in running water. For me, it means leaving it out in the woods for critters, an offering of the bones of spirit-eaten food to other life in need. When I dispose of it, I do so with sacred intention.
            Many blessings to you and your family, both living and dead on this day. I have much gratitude to the Ancestors who lived, who opened the Way that we might walk this earth together. May we walk this earth softly, that those who come after us will speak our names in joy. May the peace and stillness of the season be with you. May the Ancestors walk with us, always.


  1. I love that you listened to an old radio show during dinner! What a great idea!

  2. The spirits in my home enjoy a plate left out for them. I have a clear evp capture of my distant grandmother telling me to bring my grandpa some food for supper. Its on my page in you tube under my name. Thank you for this information.

    1. Thank you for that story, Roger- I will be sure to check it out!


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