The Art of Ashes, Urns and Alters

Lia urnI have been living with death for about two years now, so have already passed through many stages of grief, and so let’s talk about the bittersweetness of death, urns and ashes: First my cat Giovanni, then my next door neighbor, and then my own Mom, followed by one more cat Gypsy, right after Mom died. That’s four deaths…and too many.  

Let’s talk about decorating the urns and making alters when you lose a loved one to death, tonight. But let’s not be afraid. If death has touched you, honor your loved ones, for as long as it takes. I understand grief and needing containers and places to express your feelings. Here are my current urns and alters to my four loved ones:

Alters to the Dead

I don’t mean make an alter so you can “worship the dead” . I mean you can make spaces or tables that hold mementos of your loved ones, to remember them and feel connected to them,  for a while or “however long it takes”.

Make your alters full of things that lift you up: Maybe with flowers, candles, and momentos, or maybe photos and little tokens that hold meaning.  Pick only things that give you some comfort.

Here is  one alter I made for my mom: It is full of her little trinkets from her room.  The little figurines of girl and boy, seated in front have been in our family since I was a little girl.


Another alter to my mom holds her urn for the ashes, and a photo from the memorial or the entire family gathered in her honor.:

Lia urn

Here is the alter for my cat Giovanni: It holds the paintings I made of him, and his box of ashes, and then cat figurines I pick up to remember him with whenever I travel. I glued his name on the top of the box. I found little wooden letters in the craft store:

In memory of Giovanni

Decorated Urns

Now admittedly,  an urn for someone’s ashes can be sad to see and touch. It is a constant reminder of their death. I broke into a million tears the first time I received my cat’s ashes in a cedar box.

I decorated my urns, one day after all three had passed. It was a way to show them how much I loved them. I got little wooden letters at the craft store so I could spell each of their names out.

I picked this blue urn for my mom that had doves on it, and then I decorated it by gluing her name onto it in wooden letters,  Lia. I also glued one of her earrings to it, because it was a hummingbird earring:


When Giovanni the cat died, his ashes came to me in a cedar box.  I decorated the box with pieces from an antique wooden frame I’d saved from childhood (from my doll house supply box) and glued his name on it:

Giovannis Cedar Box

For a locket of Gypsy’s hair, I picked up a little box at the craft store, stained and painted it, then glued her name on it:


Gypsy's Box


Honor them. Love them. Remember them.

We need art and rituals during the stages to work through grief. I also use  music and poetry.

I don’t think we are alone in this world. I think angels love and guard us. It feels like that.

Do you have ideas how to make or decorate vessels for ashes?  You are welcome to share about it in the comments.


One thought on “The Art of Ashes, Urns and Alters

  1. Thanks for posting this Irene. It is indeed important to have “pieces” of your loved one nearby to aid in healing. I’ve got pics of my mom, things she gave me and things I gave her on a shelf in my bedroom. Pass by it every day.

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