Traditionally the purpose of home altars are for memorials or monuments to the dead. They serve to both help us remember and grieve the pain of the loss through the act of creating. Today, home altars are used by both religious and non-religious persons as a sacred space to focus our minds and engage in reflection and appreciation of a connection to something greater than ourselves. 

The beauty of a home altar is that you can make it be whatever you desire. It’s your sacred space. For example, your home altar may be specifically to honor dead relatives. A way to stay in touch, let them know they are still part of your family. Maybe you choose to visit daily, say a poem, light incense, and ring a bell.  It could be a place you designate for daily prayer, as in the Catholic tradition. Other applications could be a space for mourning a specific personal loss or general meditation. Above all, a well planned home altar serves as a tangible place of love, honoring the relationship you shared during your loved one’s lifetime and also now in the present tense, where love, connection and memories live on.

Lisa created this beautiful home altar with a focus on her son. Notice the very unique and special cast of his hand made possible through the cooperation of the funeral home.  (Photo Credit: Lisa Metz)

To get started making your own home altar, look for a peaceful comfortable space. You don’t necessarily need a lot of room so if your living space is small, that is ok. For example, it’s possible to place your home altar in a small container instead of an open space. A private and personal vessel to visit as desired. Once you choose your location, spend some time asking yourself questions to help capture the essence of the person or persons you wish to include and refine your goals.

Pre-Planning Questions:

  • What are this persons favorite hobbies, foods, songs, colors, scents, etc?
  • Are there any especially significant pieces of clothing or jewelry that could be incorporated?
  • When I think of my loved one, what are the funny or favorite expressions, words of wisdom or images from our relationship that I remember the most?
  • Where was my loved ones’ most favorite place to visit? 
  • What other objects or words do I associate with my loved one?
  • What are my favorite photographs of my loved one or the places and people that mattered to them? 

Once you have answers to these questions, make a list to help you decide on the most significant items for you to include in your home altar. Honestly, anything goes!  

Beyond person specific additions, there are other ways to enhance the beauty and meaning to your home altar. These will vary depending on your taste, beliefs and preferences. Common additions include candles, incense, sage, food items, bells, chimes, rosary beads, mala beads, even sugar skulls as in the Hispanic tradition. Along with photographs of family members, friends and pets (alive or deceased) other pictures may be added such as pictures of Saints, Angels, Deities, Tarot Cards, holy or inspiring books, journals, prayers, poems, artwork, music and quotes. Another popular technique is to include items of nature: shells, rocks, crystals, feathers, plants, flowers, salt, sand, pebbles. 

Regarding crystals, it’s worth noting that adding crystals to a home altar can be an interesting and creative pursuit as many purport to hold healing properties. Crystals can easily be researched online, in books or at a local rock shop. Here are a few examples: 

Rhodochrosite: A stone of emotional support, allowing the release of sadness
Jet: Conquers negative thought patterns
Amethyst: calms overactive mind, soothe tension
Apache Tear: lifts depression 
Rose Quartz: the heart healer

Grounding your altar through representation of the four elements is another option. One suggestion would be a bowl of dirt or sand in the North for earth, incense, to the East, for air, candle or charcoal to the South for fire, a bowl or photo of water in the West for water.

The final step in creating a home altar is to decide upon a ritual to deepen its meaning to you. Perhaps there is a certain time each day you set aside to visit the altar. It could be that is where you pray, burn incense, ring a bell, light a candle, recite a comforting saying or simply being pre-sent to acknowledge the person or people it represents. Others may wish to visit the altar on special occasions only such as birthdays, anniversary dates or marking the passing of time since your loved one died. This could be a perfect moment to light a candle, play a song or add another piece to the altar. As previously mentioned, there are no rules. This is your sacred space and opportunity to grieve, reflect and remember in whatever manner you choose.

Conchita created her home altar, or ofrenda, as a way to both honor her deceased ancestors  and to maintain an important connection to her Hispanic heritage. Notice the many creative, colorful display items beside family photographs. (Photo Credit: Conchita Iglesias McElwee)

According to Mexican tradition, people die three deaths: The first death is when our bodies cease to function, when our hearts no longer beat of their own accord, when our gaze no longer holds depth or weight, when the space we occupy slowly loses its meaning. The second death comes when the body is lowered into the ground, returned to mother earth, out of sight. The third death, the most definitive death, is when there is no one left alive to remember us.  Home Altars keep our loved ones close bringing them into our daily lives. Always loved and always remembered.