A long-standing Samhain tradition in our household is the yearly Memory Altar. I love building this special altar every October, bringing out photos and mementos of cherished family members who are no longer with us. I’m blessed to come from long-lived and large extended families on both sides, which sadly means I’m at an age where there are many memories vying for display. Here’s how I go about building our Samhain Memory Altar, with some tips on building your own. There’s still plenty of time to create one this year!
Picking Your Surface
Our current altar surface is the top of a bookshelf that belonged to my father. He threw it together in a bit of a hurry to hold some of his small book collection, house plants, and odds and ends in his trailer. It seems fitting to use it now to hold memories of our loved ones. It’s a fairly packed display, which also serves to keep the cats from climbing on it to sleep.
Ironically, the Memory Altar is more crowded now than when I started, but I’m using a smaller surface here in the new house. At the last place I used a small kitchen table, refinished by my stepfather and sister back when I first moved out on my own. Our cats even preferred that one, as I’d leave a small corner uncluttered for them to curl up on. It kept them from sleeping in the middle of things, as cats are known to do. But here in the new house, there’s just no where to put the table for best use as an altar. And it made a great general working altar, too!
So, Tip One – pick the best surface you can for your needs, keeping in mind the needs and requirements of your household as well.
Picking the Display Components
Honestly, I’ve pared the altar down a little this year, although I still do have relatives I’d love to include, such as the aunt I’m named after. Every year I remind myself that I need to track down photos of certain people so they can be included, then the holiday season picks up steam and I totally forget come January. In some cases I include mementos to remind me of them instead. The above-mentioned aunt is represented this year by a piece of blue glass from her once extensive collection.
Don’t forget beloved animal companions. I’ve tucked in a statue of Bast in remembrance of all the cats we’ve been lucky enough to share space with. Usually the ashes of my daughter’s Rosie sit there as well. We have a single photo of my daughter holding her first two rabbits tucked in among family, because they were such special friends and now serve as representatives for all the bunnies we’ve lost.
Another thing I started including a couple of years ago are loved ones of close friends – my best friend’s mother, another best friend’s late brother, a memento of yet another friend’s premature daughter. If you have the space, these call all be a part of your memory altar as a means of honoring those ties shared within our circle of loved ones.
Tip Two – As long as it will fit on the surface of your altar, anything with meaning is fair game.
Building the Display
This, of course, is my favorite part. (Well, actually my favorite part is lighting candles after it’s finished, but this is a close second!) I have to figure out how to cram as much memorabilia and photos on my bookshelf as I can, while still making it possible to see things as well as not creating a fire hazard, because I like real candles for this. (If you need to worry about open flames, then totally go with battery-powered ones.)
My daughter and I start gathering stray photos and photo frames, figure out which photos might go best together. This also might mean a trip to pick up prints of photos. Also, I’ve taken to using collage frames to save on some space. It helps that the bookshelf is on the opposite side of our gaming room this year, so I can lean frames up against the wall. Some photos will get a frame to themselves and some won’t get a frame at all, instead being tucked in amongst all the other objects, such as my paternal grandparents’ wedding photo.
I try to start by placing some of my candles – there are jar candles at either end, plus, as you can see in the photos, this black, tree-like candelabra in the middle. The little skull jar candle was a find from Dollar Tree that makes a whimsical addition. My daughter wanted to use her Anubis statue instead of Rosie’s ashes this year and our warped sense of humor dictated his placement next to a family Bible gifted to my father by his union on his father’s death.
Since the altar is in our gaming room (what many would normally use for a dining room), we have a white board on the wall above the bookshelf. Rowan stuck a picture of a koala on it, in memory of all the wildlife lost in wildfires this year, especially in Australia. (My sister took the picture on Kangaroo Island last fall.) I’ve also added a printout of the Jewish mourning poem, “We Remember Them”, by Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer. We used to use it at the Athens UU Fellowship as a responsive reading during the annual Memorial Ritual and it always speaks to my heart.
Tip Three – Have fun building your altar display, remembering stories of those you are including on it. Place mementos that have meaning to you and a connection to your loved ones. Play around with the placement until you’re happy with it. There are no right or wrongs here, so trust your intuition. And don’t worry if it’s a crowded, cluttered things when you’re done.
I almost forgot to mention the pomegranate and some apples. I always include some of these tucked somewhere on the altar. While I often honor Hera, and the pomegranate is one of her symbols, it’s also representative of Persephone and the Underworld. I need to have it on there for the altar to feel complete. (Usually they are readily available this time of year, but this being an unusual year, it was hard to find and not in the best of shape. I may need to replace it at some point in the next week or so.)
Apples are considered, by some, to be the Celtic food for the dead, left out in offering. One of the things we would do at the UU Samhain memorial ritual was ask each participant to take an apple and leave it somewhere in offering. I at least place one or two on the altar for the same reason. This year they’re in a small wire basket.
Our altar is pretty much set for this year, although there are a few photos I need to gather and tuck into the display. I should pretty much have it completed in the next couple of days. While the candles will be lit off and on over the next several nights, I’ll light them Samhain night and let them burn for hours while keeping a sort of vigil in the room. (The altar is in our gaming room because it tends to be the center of our home.)
If you’d like a simple craft project to create a very special potpourri, check out my article on creating Remembrance Potpourri.
Finally, if you do create your own Samhain Memorial Altar, and don’t mind sharing, feel free to post a photo here or on my Facebook page. I’d love to see how you make this your own while still honoring your beloved dead.
Brightest Blessings and a Blessed Samhain,