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The Beloved Dead – Shrines vs Altars

Our Beloved Dead

In doing my research for this blog I have come to realize that what I have been calling my Ancestor altar is, for all intents and purposes, a shrine.  Believe it or not there is a difference and will describe what they are in this post.

Two things prompted this post. The first being is that today 6.14.21 would have been my dad’s 86th birthday.  He passed away at the beginning of 2019 and today has been one of the worst days I have had in a while in terms of missing him.  I wanted so badly to be able to sit down with him, have a beer and get his advice on so many things.  I always miss him, but today was a “can’t get the crying under control” kind of day.  So, I lit the candle I have on the shelf where I keep his picture, and that of others I have lost over the years and talked to him. 

He taught me so many things.  How to play softball was one of those things.  I remember standing in the back yard with him playing catch almost daily during softball season, not just with me by my sister too.  Teaching us how to field ground balls and pop flies.  As we got older, and our teams turned from t-ball to fast pitch he taught us how to pitch.  As a girl growing up in the 80’s my dad taught me how to change a tire, jump start a car, and how to properly hold a flashlight when looking for that last bolt needed to put the engine back together.  He also taught me some really cool swear words while looking for that lost last bolt.

I have been calling this shelf my Ancestor Altar since I created it shortly after my dad passed, until, as I stated above, I learned the difference. 

The second thing that prompted this post was that I was talking to a friend about my ancestor altar, and they asked me to explain what that is because they had never really heard of it before.  After my explanation he suggested I write a blog post about it.

Shrine vs. Altar


Altars are sacred and active places; this is where prayer, ritual and/or offerings are left.  Offerings can be candles lit for the dead or pieces left of their favorite candy.  Flowers are also be put on an altar as an offering.  I may write a more in-depth blog specifically about altars and how they can be used.

*There are many cultures around the world that venerate their ancestors.  Those altars are created to ensure the continued wellbeing of those ancestors and to garner favor toward their living family members.  Sometimes in these practices the living will call upon the ancestors to help them in some way. Work is done at the ancestor altar in these cultures, but since I am not part of a culture where this is practiced, my knowledge is limited to what I have learned in my research and am not comfortable going into depth about a cultural practice that is not mine.  I strongly encourage you to do your research and not to appropriate practices from cultures you don’t belong to.

I have called the place where I put up pictures and mementoes of those that I love who have passed beyond the veil an altar, I do give them flowers, sometimes food, like today I left my dad some candied orange slices, and I usually always light candles for them. 


Shrines are typically a place that is set up to honor a person(s), saint or deity.  In some religions/practices this is a holy and/or consecrated place. It’s sacred.

Household shrines are a place where the living can connect with the subject(s) of the shrine, through prayer, meditation or even the simple act of cleaning it. This where a person can come when they wish to ask for guidance from their ancestors or to simply be with them.

As I mentioned earlier what I have been calling my ancestor altar is really a shrine to those that I love that have gone before.  Obviously, my dad is there along with his siblings, I have also included my oldest sons’ father, who was very dear to me even though we had not been together in decades.  His birthday is coming up also and I will be putting something up for him.

Ya’ll know I’m witchy so the terminology I use reflect that, but I would also like you to consider memorials.  My very Christian cousin has a corner where he put a photo of my dad along with some flowers and a candle. To my cousin this is a memorial to someone he loved, not a shrine, or an altar. 

We have memorials to our fallen soldiers; we purchase memorial benches in memory of dead loved ones.  We see crosses on the sides of the roads as memorials that mark a spot where someone died in an accident.  No matter what we call them, these are the places that we honor and remember our ancestors and beloved dead.

I would love to hear how do you remember and /or honor your loved ones, so please drop a comment below and let me know.

Fierce Love, 


* In some practices/cultures ancestors are only those that are in that practitioner’s direct linage. In other practices Ancestors are those that that practitioner feels close to and lead by and could include spirit guides, people outside of their direct linage that they wish to enlist the help of, be they a teacher, friend, mentor or a respected member of their community.


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