13 Items that Go On a Day of the Dead Altar & Why

Updated

Death is an inevitable part of life. That’s why every single culture around the world has certain unique traditions connected to death.

For example, in Mexico and parts of Central and South America, many celebrate Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This holiday, in fact, tends to span two days. On November 1, participants traditionally honor dead children, dedicating November 2 to deceased adults.

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Despite their subject matter, Day of the Dead celebrations hardly appear somber and sad. They’re actually festive occasions. People who take part in them aren’t mourning the dead, so much as they are celebrating their lives.

One way they do so is with a Day of the Dead altar, also known as an ofrenda. This guide will explain what one is, and what types of items may adorne one.

What Is a Day of the Dead Altar?

A Day of the Dead altar is essentially a shrine for a lost loved one. It will typically be colorful and decorative in nature. It can also feature offerings to the dead.

Day of the Dead altars play a very significant role in overall Day of the Dead celebrations. In preparation for Day of the Dead, a family might travel to a loved one’s grave in the days before the celebration to clean it. Then, during Day of the Dead celebrations, they may set up an altar at the grave itself.

A family will often have a picnic at a loved one’s grave after setting up a Day of the Dead altar. To some, this may sound morbid or somber, but that does not tend to be the case. Families usually take this opportunity to reflect on happy and humorous memories of their lost loved ones. The goal is to celebrate the dead instead of only mourning them.

Graves are not the only places that may serve as locations for Day of the Dead altars. Some families keep Day of the Dead altars in their own homes. It may also be possible to find Day of the Dead altars in certain public spaces during the celebration.

What Does a Day of the Dead Altar Represent?

Text about Day of the Dead with an image of candles

Traditionally, those who celebrate the Day of the Dead have believed that during this time of the year, the souls of lost loved ones return to the world of the living. When they do, they may hear the prayers of their surviving loved ones.

Many who celebrate Day of the Dead now may not necessarily believe dead loved ones truly return to Earth during Day of the Dead celebrations. However, traditional beliefs often still influence how they observe the Day of the Dead.

This is why many create Day of the Dead altars. A Day of the Dead altar is meant to welcome the souls of the dead. A family who creates a Day of the Dead altar wants to remind a lost loved one that they have not forgotten them.

Again, they may also wish to pray to the soul of a lost loved one. Some believe that a deceased person is more likely to hear and grant a prayer if a Day of the Dead altar is present. It serves to not only attract their soul to a given location, but also to show that their loved ones appreciate them. This may incline them to grant prayers.

What Are the Four Elements of an Altar?

The elements of a Day of the Dead altar can vary to some degree from region to region and from family to family. Later, this overview will explain some of the common elements and items you might find on a traditional Day of the Dead altar.

However, most Day of the Dead altars feature at least four essential elements. They are:

  • Water: Day of the Dead altars typically feature pitchers of water that symbolically quench the thirst of returning spirits.
  • Wind: To symbolize the wind, a Day of the Dead altar may feature such items as paper banners.
  • Earth: Symbols for earth on a Day of the Dead altar usually take the form of food. Bread is a particularly common symbol for earth on Day of the Dead altars.
  • Fire: Candles are the symbol for fire on virtually all Day of the Dead altars.

You likely noticed that these are the four elements that many consider to make up the world around us. Including these elements is one way to associate Day of the Dead with its roots in Aztec culture and beliefs. Day of the Dead is a somewhat unique celebration, as multiple faiths and beliefs have inspired the way people observe it.

Common Day of the Dead Altar Items

Text about Day of the Dead with images of photographs

The way in which a family or individual chooses to decorate a Day of the Dead altar can depend on their personal preferences to some extent. However, there are certain items that people traditionally decorate Day of the Dead altars with, as these items often have symbolic meanings. 

Examples of such items include the following:

1. Skulls

It’s important to note that specific details of Day of the Dead traditions can vary depending on what region of Mexico you are in. Although many Day of the Dead altars feature the items on this list, certain items may be more common in certain regions.

That said, no matter where you are, Day of the Dead shrines tend to include decorative skulls, or sugar skulls. Their designers use such materials as granulated sugar, meringue powder, and water when molding them. Once they’ve completed sculpting, they traditionally paint them in bright colors.

Most Day of the Dead altars include skulls because people make offerings to the deceased at these shrines. The skulls symbolize the people to whom they are making offerings.

2. Food

Don’t make the mistake of thinking everything you’ll find on a Day of the Dead altar is inedible! On the contrary, food often plays a major role in Day of the Dead shrines.

This is because tradition holds that the souls of the deceased will return on the Day of the Dead to collect their offerings.

Tradition also states that these souls may be hungry and thirsty. That’s why many Day of the Dead altars include Pan de Muerto, or Bread of the Dead. This sweet treat’s shape typically resembles a skull and crossbones. Altars may also feature water and salt, as well as specific foods that a dead person enjoyed when they were alive. 

You might have noticed that the materials used to make Day of the Dead skulls are also technically edible. While this is true, most skulls are decorative, although some people also make special sugar skulls you are meant to eat.

3. Photos and Possessions

Day of the Dead altars are unique shrines. Certain items, such as skulls, are part of them when they’re first designed. However, as people add more offerings, they continue to develop and grow.

For example, many people place photos of dead loved ones on Day of the Dead shrines. They might also place possessions that were important to them in life.

This highlights a pretty interesting point. Even if you don’t celebrate Day of the Dead, you’ll come to realize that the way various cultures honor the dead can overlap with each other in many instances.

For example, plenty of people in the U.S. visit the graves of deceased loved ones to leave pictures and possessions. This is clearly very similar to making such offerings at Day of the Dead altars.

4. Marigolds

Again, according to tradition, the souls of the departed return to Day of the Dead altars. That said, sometimes they need a little help. That’s where marigolds come in. 

People don’t merely add marigolds (also referred to as Flor de Muerto, or Flowers of the Dead in Spanish and Cempazuchitl in the native language of Nahuatl) to these shrines because they are pretty. Traditionally, they believe that the unique scent and bright color of marigolds help to draw dead souls closer to an altar.

In fact, many shrines also feature trails of marigold leaves leading up to them. This symbolizes a path a soul can follow on its way there.

5. Skeleton Figurines

Along with large decorative skulls, Day of the Dead altars also commonly include smaller skeleton figurines. These may be toys or puppets. Sometimes they are even edible, adding more for people’s ancestors to enjoy.

Including skull figurines on a Day of the Dead altar makes sense for obvious reasons. However, it’s important to understand that these figurines differ from those you might associate with Halloween or similar celebrations.

These skeletons aren’t dancing around cemeteries like cartoon ghouls. They aren’t wearing Grim Reaper robes. Those who craft them don’t even necessarily try to make them look particularly frightening or threatening, like some might expect based on their experiences with skeleton iconography in other cultures. 

Instead, the skeleton figurines you’ll find on Day of the Dead altars tend to be dressed like normal people ready to perform normal, everyday activities. These may include dancing, playing music, or simply eating. Some skeleton figurines also depict people experiencing major life moments, such as getting married.

This once again relates directly to the Day of the Dead’s essence. By showing skeletons dressing and behaving like normal people, Day of the Dead altars remind the living that death is always with us, and always will be.

6. Monarch Butterflies

Look closely at a Day of the Dead altar, and you might spot monarch butterflies. (They’ll usually be dead, of course). 

Monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico every year. Their arrival typically coincides with November 1, the start of Day of the Dead. According to traditional beliefs, this is because they contain the souls of the dead returning to their shrines for the celebration.

7. Papel Picado

Again, if you’ve ever seen Day of the Dead altars, you know they look much more vibrant and festive than most grave shrines you might find in a typical U.S. cemetery. Often, Papel Picado helps to add color to these already colorful scenes.

Papel Picado is the colorful perforated paper hanging on and over Day of the Dead altars. It’s significant for two reasons. One, because it’s perforated, the paper naturally contains numerous holes. Some believe these holes serve as gateways for souls visiting their shrines. 

The paper is also very fragile. This symbolizes life’s fragility. Once again, many Day of the  Dead altars serve as reminders that death can come at any time.

8. Candles

Numerous Day of the Dead altars also include candles. They serve the same symbolic purpose as marigolds, helping souls find their way to the altars.

9. Dogs

Some Day of the Dead altars feature small models or figurines of dogs. This is tied to the belief that dogs help souls find their way to their resting place.

Just as candles and marigolds help attract them to the world of the living, dogs help them return to the afterlife.

10. Incense

Anyone who has the opportunity to see an authentic Day of the Dead shrine up close should make sure they do so. When you approach the altar, you may discover that the experience is multisensory.

Day of the Dead altars clearly look attractive and impressive. That said, people also commonly add incense to them, resulting in a noticeable scent. They believe incense helps to facilitate communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

11. Lanterns

In many ways, the Day of the Dead represents Catholic beliefs.

For example, Day of the Dead altars often include lanterns hung towards the top of the shrine. These lanterns represent the Star of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem guided the Wise Men to witness the birth of Jesus, and the lantern guides visiting souls back to their resting place.

12. White Cross

Although many people associate Day of the Dead symbols with Catholic iconography, you should still remember that they can have multiple meanings.

Cultures and traditions develop and change over the years. The significance of a symbol doesn’t need to remain the same forever, nor does it need to have the same meaning for every person.

Consider the example of a white cross. You’ll find a cross of slaked lime drawn on the ground beneath many Day of the Dead altars. Naturally, people include this symbol as a representation of the Christian cross.

That said, people also used to draw white crosses to symbolize the four cardinal directions. This provided the souls of the dead yet another means of finding their way back to the afterlife.

13. Arch

Day of the Dead shrines often feature arches where people can leave their offerings. However, these arches don’t merely serve decorative purposes. The arches also symbolize the gateway a Day of the Dead shrine creates between the land of the living and the land of the dead.

Yet again, this blending of life and death is the core of many Day of the Dead traditions. While we may enjoy being alive, we must remember it is not a permanent experience.

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar

You may wish to make a Day of the Dead altar yourself. You could do so if you wish to celebrate Day of the Dead, or simply because you would like to work on a project that helps you learn more about a different culture than your own in a more direct manner. 

To make your own Day of the Dead altar, follow these key steps:

Determine who to dedicate the altar to

A Day of the Dead altar usually isn’t a shrine to the souls of deceased people in general. A traditional Day of the Dead altar is a shrine to a specific loved one.

Deciding who you’ll dedicate your altar to will help you decide how to decorate it and which types of items to place on it as offerings. For example, families often leave toys on Day of the Dead altars for lost children. This is less common when the lost loved one to whom they’ve dedicated an altar was older when they passed away.

Choose a flat surface

You will typically create a Day of the Dead altar on a flat surface of some kind. This can be a table, desk, or any similar surface that’s available.

Create an arch

Most Day of the Dead altars feature arches at one end. Traditionally, you would make this type of arch with sugar cane stalks. If sugar cane stalks are not available, you can create the arch with any other material that allows you to bend it into the proper shape.

Attach the arch to one end of the altar by gluing, taping, or tying it. The arch will essentially serve as the backdrop for your altar. All the items of the altar will face away from it. If you wish, you can decorate the arch with flowers.

Create tiers

Day of the Dead altars often have tiers for displaying items. You can create these tiers with boxes or crates. Once you’ve done so, place a colorful tablecloth over the tiers and the base. You can also add papel picado (a type of perforated paper many Day of the Dead altars feature) along the edges.

Add a photo

On the top tier in the middle of your altar, place a photo of the person to whom the altar is dedicated. You can place more than one photo in this spot if you’ve dedicated the altar to multiple people.

Add the essential elements

To ensure your Day of the Dead altar includes the four essential elements, place a pitcher of water, several candles, some form of food, and paper banners or similar items on the altar. Although bread is the most traditional food item to include, you might consider including additional treats. The idea is to create a feast for the soul of a lost loved one to enjoy when they return to the world of the living.

Add other items

You can decorate the altar and make offerings to lost loved ones with virtually any items you choose. That said, if you want your altar to reflect traditional Day of the Dead beliefs, you may want to consider using the items this blog has listed. You can also add personal mementos of lost loved ones.

Burn incense

Burning incense is the typical way to complete a Day of the Dead altar. The belief is that burning incense clears negative energy and makes the altar more inviting to the souls of the dead.

The Power of Tradition

Day of the Dead is much more than a celebration featuring bright colors and inventive costumes. These types of celebrations can help someone remember a family member who has passed on. They can make us feel more comfortable with the idea of our own deaths. Perhaps most importantly for some, they use our shared cultural experiences to help us confront the inevitability of death in a positive and communal way.


Sources

  1. Castillo Farfan, Karen. “Decoding The Food And Drink On A Day Of The Dead Altar.” NPR, NPR, 29 October 2014, npr.org
  2. “Día De Los Muertos: See The Meaning Behind The Altar For Day Of The Dead.” Latin Times, Latin Times LLC, 19 October 2017, latintimes.com
  3. Nalewicki, Jennifer. “The Meaning Behind Six Objects on Día de los Muertos Altars”. Smithsonian Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, 31 October 2019, smithsonianmag.com
  4. Rumore, Kori, Rick Tuma, Rodolfo Jimenez, and Octavio Lopez. “How Day of the Dead is celebrated (explained in English and Spanish).” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 16 September 2019, chicagotribune.com
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