Day of the Dead Altar: Welcoming Our Loved Ones Home

Day of the Dead Altar: Welcoming Our Loved Ones Home

"Imagine that a loved one is joining you for dinner after a long absence. Naturally, you wish to surround them with things they love and make them feel comfortable in your home. They'll be thirsty and hungry after such a long journey and their favorite foods must be prepared. The flowers and candles must also be just right. They of course will be seated at a place of honor and your wish is to laugh and reminisce with your visiting guests until dawn." This is how we welcome and celebrate the spirit of our loved ones on Día de los Muertos.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrates the lives of those who have passed on as a means of remembering them. The belief is that the souls of the ones gone cross over to the world of the living on these special days.

The Día de los Muertos ofrendas (Day of the Dead altars) are the most prominent feature in the celebration because they welcome the souls back home and lets them know that they haven't been forgotten.

Día de los Muertos ofrendas are placed on the eve of October 31st to remember the children and on the eve of November 1st to remember the adults. And while ofrendas are very much personalized, to honor loved ones, there are key elements important to every altar.


Traditionally, an altar has 3 levels to represent heaven, earth, and the underworld. More elaborate altars may have up to 7 levels representing the steps a soul has to take to get to heaven.

day of the dead altar día de los muertos ofrenda water candles pan de muerto


The light from the ever-present burning candles guide the souls home and in some indigenous cultures also represent the souls themselves.


The belief is that after their long journey, the first thing that the spirits want is a glass of water to quench their thirst. For some indigenous communities, water is thought to represent the purity of the soul.

Cempasúchitl Flowers marigolds day of the dead altar día de los muertos ofrenda


The flor de cempasúchitl (marigold) is the iconic flower used during the Day of the Dead celebration. Its bright yellow color evokes the sun, which in Aztec tradition, helped guide the spirits of the deceased. The petals are used to create a trail that helps the spirits see the path to their altars. The cempasúchitl's intoxicating scent is also believed to guide the spirits. While the yellow marigold is the most popular color other colors are also incorporated, particularly, purple marigolds to signify grief and mourning, and white to signify hope.


Papel picado, delicate and intricately cut tissue banners, are a staple ornament in many Mexican festivities. For Día de los Muertos, this element represents the festive side of this celebration and is believed to help guide the spirit through its fluttering in the breeze motion. 


Salt represents purification. It's placed in vessels around the altar to purify the spirits’ soul, so that their body doesn’t get tainted during their journey to the land of the living and they can find their way back the following year.


Incense is an important element in a Día de los Muertos altar. Copal was considered the food of the gods and was burned as offerings to them. During Día de los Muertos copal is burned, as it's believed that the scent attracts spirits, drawing them home. It's also used to cleans the area and to ward off evil.


Photographs of the evoked relatives are placed at the altar to help them recognize their own home and revive their image.

pan de muerto día de los muertos ofrenda day of the dead altar


It wouldn't be a Mexican celebration without food! The most common food on an altar is pan de muerto (a sweet, round bread that represents the bones and skull of the dead, the cardinal points, and the cycles of life and death) and fruit. In addition, food favored by the deceased is placed at the altar so that they may taste it through smell. 

black and white hand painted Mexican skull day of the dead altar día de los muertos ofrenda


For Mexicans "la calavera" (the skull) is more than tradition, it's an identity. It transcends limits and is a modern symbol that bridges the past with the contemporary. La calavera reminds us of what we have been, what we are, and what we will be.

Candy skulls, particularly sugar skulls, are placed at the altar as a sweet reminder that death is the only thing guaranteed in this life. 


Libations such as tequila, mezcal, and pulque are placed at the altar for the adult souls so they can relax and enjoy with their family.


Crucifixes and images of saints and virgins are placed at the altar to protect the spirits on their journey.


Petates (palm tree leaf woven carpets) provide the souls a soft place to lie down and rest after the long journey.


Items that once belonged to the returning spirits are placed at the altar to make them feel at home.


All photos featured where taken by my friend and talented photographer Carly Diaz for Vía Raíz.