10 items that should be on your altar for Día de los Muertos

Mexico has many celebrations, but one of the most outstanding celebrations is definitely the Día de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead. Where other countries face death as an evil thing that should be avoided, Mexico embraces death as part of the circle of life. They honour it as well as they make fun of it – a skill that I admire a lot. Historically, the Day of the Dead is a mixture of celebrations of old Mexican civilisations and of the Catholic religion that Spanish conquerers brought to the country. A couple of weeks before October 31st and November 1st-2nd you can already see death everywhere in decorations in the streets of Mexico. It’s in bakeries and (candy) shops, in restaurants and public buildings.

This is our altar at home
This is our altar at home

The Day of the Dead exists to honour the ancestors, our beloved deceased. The 1th of November is ‘Día de los innocentes‘, the day when the souls of deceased children come to the earth. The 2nd of November is All Saints Day – the Day of the Dead. Days before the actual celebration, people start creating beautiful altars in their homes or communities. Even work places have their altars! An altar can have two, three or seven levels and will typically consist of three levels. There are two explanations for the use of three levels: 1] A representation of the underworld, the earth and the sky through Aztec beliefs and; 2] A representation of hell, earth and heaven through Christian beliefs.

Made by students of Tecnológico de Monterrey - Hidalgo
Made by students of Tecnológico de Monterrey – Hidalgo

If you would like to create your own altar, or if you’re curious about the meanings of various parts of an altar for Día de los Muertos, I’ll give you 10 items that should be on your altar for this special celebration. Keep in mind that the tradition has evolved throughout the centuries. There is no official way of doing it, but there are some basic elements that you’ll find in almost all altars.

  1. The Flowers The smell and sight of the pretty Cempazúchil (Zempoaxochitl) flower is typical for a Day of the Dead altar. This flower has a strong scent so that the dead can find their way ‘home’ when they descend from heaven.
  2. The Food One of the most important elements of the altar. People tend to choose food and drinks that their deceased liked. Many offer them traditional Mexican food, such as tamales, atole, pan de muerto etcetera. The food is an invitation to the dead to come and visit. It is said that the deceased spirits ‘eat and drink’ the offerings to nourish their soul. When celebrations are over, families eat the offerings – although they are said to be tasteless since the spirits ate/drank them.
  3. The Candles People decorate their altars with candles because of its symbolic meaning, representing the light of God and heaven. For children, colourful candles are used whereas for adults, only black and white will be on the altar.
  4. The Cross Representing Jesus Christ in a Catholic celebration.
  5. Candy Skulls Calaveras – remembrance of the final destiny of each living being. But being candy skulls, they also show that death isn’t something to be afraid of, it’s something ‘sweet’.
  6. Incense Originally, people used copal as a symbol for purification and oration. It is said that the smell of copal or incense helps to let the scent of food travel to heaven – an invitation for the deceased to travel to the world.
  7. Photographs … of the deceased (to memorise).
  8. A Glass (of water) It is said that the spirits must be very thirsty after a long journey from heaven to earth. When they arrive, they can drink some water.
  9. Papel Picado click here.
  10. Personal Objects Anything that the deceased loved ones liked to do can be placed on the altar as well.

If you have any recommendations or comments, please let me know.

Made by students of Tecnológico de Monterrey - Hidalgo
Made by students of Tecnológico de Monterrey – Hidalgo

!Feliz Día de los Muertos!





© 2016 by Debbie Vorachen – AHORITA YA. All Rights Reserved.
Photos © 2016 by Debbie Vorachen – AHORITA YA. All Rights Reserved.

Expat in Mexico

Some information is retrieved from these websites:

El altar de muertos: Lo que debe llevar y su significado



6 thoughts on “10 items that should be on your altar for Día de los Muertos

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