As far as we know homo sapiens, and the Neanderthals before them, have been constructing, decorating and worshiping at altars for millennia. Whether at the base of a tree, the top of a mountain or the water’s edge; within a cave, chapel or temple: the impulse to express devotion and connect with ‘something’ unseen within and beyond ourselves, endures.
"Your sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again."
"All Nature is the temple; earth the altar."
As far as we know homo sapiens, and the Neanderthals before them, have been constructing, decorating and worshiping at altars for millennia. Whether at the base of a tree, the top of a mountain or the water’s edge; within a cave, chapel or temple: the impulse to express devotion and connect with ‘something’ unseen within and beyond ourselves, endures. When it's not possible to do this in nature or congregate in fellowship, a personal altar or home shrine is one option for intimate, essential communion.
True, it isn't for everyone. But a scroll through the hashtags #personalaltar or #homeshrine quickly reveals the endless ways in which individuals experience devotion, and how they associate that devotion with an altar.
My own fascination with altars began at an early age. My family experienced three tragic deaths before my tenth birthday. Often overwhelmed by turbulent feelings and thoughts, I was drawn to National Geographic magazine images of people worshiping at altars and the serene opening scenes of the television show “Kung Fu”. A school field trip to the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco, gave me the direct experience of a calm, beautiful, whimsical setting where I felt at ease; somehow comforted. Although I couldn’t articulate it at the time, my pursuit of places and practices that offered inner peace had officially begun.
Around this same time, I began to make arrangements of objects given to me by people I loved: a small metal cup, ceramic figurines of animals, a pair of rose earrings that I couldn’t wear yet, feathers, precious stones, favorite books. Although I was still a child, I knew that they weren’t toys and I did not play with them. Often they sat in the background of my daily life, gathering dust while I was at school, playing outside, watching cartoons…
Eventually, I would return to them, gently remove the dust and place them lovingly where I could ‘see’ them again. To others, the display would not have resembled an altar, nor did I think of it as one. But instinctually, I knew that these small treasures connected me to those that I missed due to death and circumstance.
These treasures were gently packed and brought with me when I attended UCSB. They collected quite a bit of dust while I focused on the life of a college student. Even so, altars and places of worship began to appear in my artwork, informed by courses in religious studies, history, literature and anthropology.
Before I graduated, a dear friend died unexpectedly and for the next year, the photography darkroom and art studio became my sacred spaces. Making art gave me purpose, as I attempted to transform my sorrow into beauty. It would be a few more years and several more deaths before I eventually went to therapy, practiced meditation and embraced my grief directly. Until then, creative pursuits and an interest in global celebrations of life and death had to be enough.
When I learned of Días de los Muertos, I had already experienced the death of eight loved ones; only attending the memorial for one and the funeral of another. Creating an Ofrenda became an essential step towards processing and healing years of accumulated grief and ‘ambiguous loss’. A friend asked, “Do you believe your loved ones actually return to the Ofrenda?” Whether they actually did or not felt irrelevant. The act of celebrating them on the altar returned them to me in a loving, colorful, playful way; allowing me to experience a full spectrum of feelings from sorrow to gratitude.
The experience of creating the Ofrenda each year was so healing and satisfying that I began to create small altars in our home that would be on display throughout the year. Places of beauty and often humor, they reminded me to take a deep breath when I felt overwhelmed or frustrated. In my home office I found a place for my childhood treasures where I could see them daily, remembering to remove the dust from them several times a year.
By the time my son was born, I had created at least a half dozen altars inside our home and out in the yard. So it wasn’t too surprising when my son eventually asked me to construct an altar for his room, for him to display his treasures and favorite books. Finally every room in the house had an altar. At a glance, it was eccentric home decor. For those curious, each altar could reveal a story of connection, resilience and love.
In my lifetime, I’ve had many opportunities to connect with ‘something’ unseen within and beyond myself by sitting at the base of a tree, standing on the top of a mountain or walking along the water’s edge; silent, filled with awe and gratitude within a cave, chapel and temple. But when it’s not possible to make these pilgrimages, I know that I can return to my home altar daily to experience intimate, essential communion.
"So this is how you swim inward. So this is how you flow outwards. So this is how you pray."
Rebecca Zendejas has had a lifelong fascination with places of worship and the creation of sacred space within daily routines. Inspired by the celebrations of Samhain and Dias de los Muertos she created the Community Memorial Altar at Paradise Found last year; anyone and everyone were invited to write the name of a loved one and add it to the altar. As an artist and woodworker, Rebecca designs and creates one of a kind personal altars for the home and office. She can be found on Instagram @zendohous or contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.