In many traditions and cultures, altars are a way to remember loved ones after their death. Humans created altars since the early days of civilization, from the shrines of Ancient Greece to Day of the Dead altars in modern Mexico.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Why Make an Altar?
- Step 1: Make a Plan
- Step 2: Conduct Research
- Step 3: Gather Supplies
- Step 4: Put Your Altar Together
- Step 5: Add Special Touches
- Step 6: Use Your Altar
Some of the most well-known shrines are also coincidentally part of the world’s most famous tourist destinations. A few you likely know of are the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, and even Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. These altars and monuments are a way of remembering those who died and keeping their legacy alive.
While you likely don’t have the resources to create an altar on the scale of the Lincoln Memorial, you can still build your own at-home altar to remember a family member in your own way. In this guide, we’ll share step-by-step tips for how to make an altar to remember deceased family.
If you're interested in other unique ways to honor a loved one, you can consider a custom urn from a store like Foreverence or even have a memorial diamond made from ashes with a company like Eterneva.
Why Make an Altar?
If you’ve never used an altar as part of your religion or to remember a loved one, this might seem like a foreign concept. Why make an altar in the first place? Throughout history, altars and shrines have become a way to put our feelings and thoughts into the physical world. They help us remember, heal, and reflect.
The process of creation is a powerful thing. All artists know that painting a picture, writing a story, or singing a song has a strong impact on our emotional sides. These actions are a form of ritual, and they put us in touch with a deeper part of ourselves.
If you’re recovering from the loss of a loved one, making an altar is a way to heal through creation. It offers a safe place for us to unwind, reflect, and remember our loved one. Altars are also a physical symbol of a person’s legacy, and this means the world to those who want to keep their deceased loved ones close to them.
Step 1: Make a Plan
Before you make your shrine for your loved one, create a plan. There is no set rulebook you need to follow or specific guidelines. This is something you should feel free to personalize as you wish. There are a number of different types of altars you might consider:
- Portable shrine (one in a small box)
- Semi-permanent shrine (on a shelf or table that’s easy to move)
- Permanent shrine (not easily moved)
If you’re a student or you move around frequently, a portable shine is likely a better fit. Similarly, if you want something that you take with you on the go or when you travel, a smaller altar is best.
On the other hand, if you’d like something special to celebrate a death anniversary, feel free to choose a more permanent altar design.
Step 2: Conduct Research
There are many modern traditions that integrate shrines and altars in memory of a loved one as part of the practice. If you’ve never researched these before, this is a great way to expose yourself to different types of memorials.
Shrines are a regular part of these belief systems:
- Pagan or Wiccan
- Catholicism in Latin America
- Mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome
Each of these traditions has its own style of creating altars, so feel free to borrow things that feel right to you. Give some thought to your loved one. What things did they love? How would you describe their legacy? Let these thoughts guide your search.
Perhaps they were vocal about their love for the environment. In this case, the earth-based altars of Wicca might be a great source of inspiration. It’s okay to think outside the box and borrow ideas from existing traditions.
Step 3: Gather Supplies
Here’s where you get to be a bit creative. Depending on the size or type of altar you’re making in honor of your loved one, gather some supplies. Of course, what you choose depends on your budget, the size, and type of altar. If you choose to create one out of a shoebox, for example, you’ll be more limited than with a full-size altar in your home.
The first thing you’ll need to find is your vehicle. If you’re making your altar on a table, shelf, or nook of your home, this is less important. If you want it to physically fit inside something, consider these containers for a portable or semi-permanent shrine:
- Candy or gum tin
- Jewelry box
- Gift box
- Cigar box
- Truck or hard case
- Cut-out book
- Office paper box
Once you’ve decided your vehicle for the altar, it’s time to gather additional supplies. You’ll need both crafting supplies and things that remind you of your loved one. Gather things like:
- Personal objects
- Decorative paper
- Any other mementos
Again, there is no strict rulebook. If it means something to you and is easy to secure, you can use it in your homemade altar. Think of this as a special family heirloom. It doesn’t need any monetary value to be important.
Step 4: Put Your Altar Together
To put your altar together, you’ll want to make it look nice. Even if you don’t have any crafting skills, take your time with this process. Use this moment to reflect on your loved one and create something in their honor.
It’s okay if it doesn’t look like a professional artist put it together. As long as it’s built with love, it’s special.
Begin by decorating the interior or exterior. If you’re using a shoebox, for example, paint the outside and the inside and allow it to dry. You might also apply beads, decorative paper, or photographs.
If you’re creating a semi-permanent or permanent altar, prepare the space. You might paint a special table or shelf, or simply rearrange things you already have.
Step 5: Add Special Touches
Once you’ve set up your altar space, it’s time to make it personal. Since this is a place for remembering and healing, it should have things that you find soothing. Add things like:
- Framed photos
- Chimes or bells
- Religious symbols
- Natural objects (rocks, flowers, crystals)
- Personal objects (letters, cards, jewelry, clothing)
Your altar should be functional as well as beautiful. Having a place to go when you need to reflect and mourn your loved one is key to healing. If you have a place to sit quietly with a relaxing candle and your favorite mementos, this is a great way to enter a calm headspace.
Many people choose to add a cover to their altar or to use a decorative mat or pillow. These are all small touches that make the space more special and functional. Consider keeping your altar somewhere private and away from guests in your home.
It’s likely not something you want guests rummaging through, and it often feels like a very personal thing. Covering it with a cloth when not in use or storing it safely away helps it feel more sacred.
Step 6: Use Your Altar
Finally, use your altar. This is a space that belongs to you and you alone. It’s a powerful way to honor a loved one, but it’s also an effective way to feel closer to yourself.
Your altar isn’t something that has to stay stagnant. In many of those cultures and religions mentioned earlier, altars evolved throughout the year. They’d be used for religious celebrations during the holidays, and they include different things depending on how the individual felt.
Feel free to allow your altar to grow and change with you. Maybe it’s something that’s extravagant right now, but you’ll slowly dwindle it to just a favorite photograph and candle. Perhaps the opposite is true. Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all.
Your altar is a type of personal journey. It’s a way to acknowledge and feel your grief while allowing yourself to grow from it. The way you use your altar is entirely up to you.
Build a Powerful Legacy
Altars come in all shapes and sizes, and they do wonders for those who build them. As a form of expression and creation, they’re an effective way to bring change. Whether your shrine is simply a way to remember a loved one or an active part of your grief ritual, the choice is entirely up to you.
In our fast-paced lifestyles, taking the time to slow down and create something in honor of someone’s legacy can be very healing. They’re a form of peace and comfort in a rapidly changing world. They connect us to the generations of humans who came before us as well as those who come after us. Ultimately, they’re a symbol of healing, growth, and reflection. Do you have an altar in your home? Is this something you could consider making for someone you love?