Day of the Dead: 5 Essential Elements of the Altar


El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Celebrations in Mexico take place from the 31st of October to the 2nd of November. Deceased loved ones are welcomed back to the land of the living for just a short time and altars are constructed to honor and remember family members and will be present in most households. These beautiful altars include a variety of symbols and objects which represent those who have passed on.



Because there are several days of celebrations and preparations to receive loved ones, the altars take time and dedication. Traditionally an altar consists of three levels representing heaven, Earth and the world in between. Each altar is individual but here are 5 items (plus a couple more) that you are likely to see on a Dia de los Muertos altar in Mexico:

1.  White Tablecloth and Salt

Most altars have a simple white table cloth, often one that has been passed through generations, covering the different levels. Salt is placed on the altar. It is believed that salt will protect the body from breaking down as it travels the journey between the world of the dead and of the living.

2.  Cempasuchil Flowers

Many beautiful yellow, gold and orange flowers will adorn the altar. These are the cempasuchil flowers and their scent will guide the spirits of the deceased as they return to visit their family. You might also see petals laid out on the ground in a path towards the altar.



3.  Copal Incense and a Cross

Incense and candles are another way to guide the spirits to the altar. Copal is the most commonly used incense and is used to purify the energy of the air around the altar. Some say it also wards off any bad spirits from approaching the altar. Often there will be a cross of some form on the altar and this is a sign of forgiveness.

4.  Food and Drink

Favorite foods and drinks are prepared and laid out for the spirits to enjoy. The most common food item is pan de muerto, bread of the dead, a round loaf of sugary, sweet bread with the image of a skull and cross bones. You will see pan de muerto in all bakeries and supermarkets in the days leading up to the 31st of October! Other foods include dishes that the deceased family members enjoyed, bringing back happy memories and familiar tastes and smells.



5. Portrait

Photos of the deceased are placed on the highest point of the altar. Pictures of saints might also be present as it is they who guide the spirits and help to bring them back during Dia de los Muertos.

While these are 5 very common elements of an Dia de los Muertos altar, you will find other items such as candies, toys (particularly to honor children), personal belongings and religious symbols. This is not a sad time but a celebration of life, filled with color and light, family moments and the opportunity to come together as a community in honor of those who’ve departed this world.




Day of the Dead: 5 Essential Elements of the Altar