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Thai Spirit Houses

There are at least two places in that I have visited where particular types of spirit houses exist:

Thai people believe that there are guardian spirits for different buildings or areas of land. These spirits are wandering spirits that can cause harm or suffering unless gifts are offered to them frequently. It is believed that they influence the future, grant wishes and keep people healthy. The spirit expects to be “informed” if a building is to be built or extended, a business started, etc. If the humans do not seek permission, it is believed that the spirit may cause the venture to fail. There are nine such guardian spirits, each offering a different type of protection.


Alaskan Spirit Houses

The graveyard outside of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Eklutna, Alaska, is filled with more than 100 burial sites containing colorful spirit houses (each about the size of a large dollhouse).  Before the Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived, it was customary for the native Athabascans to cremate their dead. When Native and Orthodox customs started to blend and mix, they began burying their dead in the cemetery (built up around the church). This was a very difficult task due to the glacier-scoured rocks below the shallow soil!). When a body was first buried, a blanket was placed over the grave to warm and comfort the soul as it transitions to the next world (a journey that is believed to take forty days). When the spirit house has been constructed, it is placed over the blanket and family members paint it in colors that have represented their family name for generations. Unlike in many cemeteries throughout the contiguous United States, however, 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.


Spirit Houses for PTSD

I believe veterans (and others) who are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress could benefit by constructing their own spirit houses as part of their healing journey. The houses would serve to remember, honor, or even appease the spirits of others who have died.  Whether these dead were fellow soldiers, innocent non-combatants, or even enemies whose lives they took, this homage to the dead can be important to those vets healing journey. But even more important than the final house itself are the care, thought, and time that goes into the house’s planning and construction.

How to construct:

There really are no specific guidelines… one should be guided by what is inside, what feels right, and what the person wants the house to represent.  Part of the personalization is to make a house that “represents” the dead being honored… so, use of symbolism in construction materials or form, etc. is ideal. Houses may be constructed from scratch using raw materials (natural or man-made depending on what you are trying to convey) or they may be built upon an existing structure. The houses can be any size, although limiting the size so it “fits” the environment it will be placed in makes sense. The house can sit on the ground or be elevated on a structure or platform. They can be located outdoors (usual) or even indoors. My suggestion is for the house’s location to be meaningful or symbolic (e.g. a place that you find particular spiritual or peaceful). Items adorning the spirit house would ideally be symbolic and/or represent aspects of the dead that you connect with and/or that you’d like to remember. Pictures, poems, etc, can also be placed on (or in) the house.

Adding a significant(s) item at a later date is perfectly acceptable if it feels right.  Also, adding some kind of sound maker (e.g. chimes or a bell) can allow the person to “summon” the spirits whenever he/she wished to have a conversation.  The area around the house can also become part of the monument (e.g. planting a small surrounding garden).  As with the Alaskan spirit houses, I would recommend that these houses, especially if outdoors, be allowed to deteriorate over time and eventually return to the earth (paralleling the fading of painful memories). However, if desire, a house could be maintained over time… this is an individual decision.

  • Steve Kinne, Retired USAF


Below: Spirit house made with natural materials from the forest, adorned with personal items

(providing fond memories, and  then placed on an existing tree stump with ferns

transplanted around the base.






Above:  Spirit house built upon an old, restored bird cage,

adorned with symbolic items (many belonged to the person who died),

placed on a raised platform between Ironwood trees



Who We Are

We make art in order not to die from the truth.

Ashlar Center for Narrative Arts is a U.S. 501c3 non-profit organization designed to serve the personal story and address the trauma it may contain. Our work is educational and skills driven -- grounded in thirty years of community based experience.

We use photos, interviews, and teach guided writing (Writing Through the Body).  For those people for whom revealing identity is unsafe or who are non-literate, they are offered an opportunity to  build a multi-media piece to contain and share the story in an abstract or symbolic form. Our goal is Witnessing and facilitating the creation of a coherent narrative for our students as they move with us toward well-being and resilience. 

Following from our initial work with Story, we collaborate with students to create a culturally relevant Self-Care program facilitated by them.

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