Even families with very limited budgets spare no expense when preparing the altar to honor their family. They want their spirits to enjoy the offerings and to return each year to continue this special spiritual companionship.

The altar is prepared in a place of honor in the home, using empty boxes on a table to form a pyramid of three or more levels, then a white tablecloth covers it all.

Four candles are placed on the top level to represent the cardinal directions. A candle is lit for each dead family member, and one extra so that no one is left out. The candles, which represent hope and faith, burn during the night, so that there is no darkness.

Copal is the resinous sap of a Mexican tree, burned as incense since the time of the Aztecs as an offering to the gods. On the Day of the Dead altar, the scent attracts spirits, drawing them home. It is also used to cleanse the area, and to ward off evil.

While most altars are laden with the favorite foods, sweets, drinks, and harvest fruits of each family spirit, even the most basic altar includes these basic needs:

  • WATER to quench the thirst and for purification
  • SALT to season the food and for purification
  • BREAD to represent the food needed for survival

A washbasin, soap, towel, mirror and comb are placed nearby so the spirits can clean up when they return.

Other traditional altar offerings include:




bread of the dead



papel picado
(cut paper skeletons)



glass of water a must!



Cempasuchil (marigolds)


clay censer

baby's breath


sugar skulls

personal momentos



photos of the deceased


toy coffins

chicken in mole


altar arch

calaveras (skeletons)


toys - gifts

religious symbols

The four principle seeds used by the Aztecs were:

  • tomatillo (green tomato)

  • cacao

  • chile

  • and corn

The four elements of life:

  • water (the conch shell)

  • fire (candles)

  • earth

  • and wind (flute and conch shell)

The four stages of life are also represented in the four stages of corn:

  • the seed

  • fresh corn

  • dry corn

  • and the corn used in different foods

    • tortillas

    • tamales

    • atole

The hand crafted skeletons, Calaveras are funny and friendly rather than frightening or spooky. They represent the beloved dead ones, their occupations and hobbies. As they are placed on the altar, the delightful skeleton figures bring back fond memories and cause the grieving ones to smile. The figures with the smells of favorite foods, help the spirits find the right house.

Three calaveras, which represent the trinity, are placed on the second level.

Colorful tissue paper, papel picado, is cut into intricate designs and strung to flutter over around the altar. This custom comes from the Aztecs who used paper banners in rituals. The colors used represent:

  • Black for the Prehispanic religions and land of the dead

  • Purple from the Catholic calendar to signify pain, suffering, grief, mourning

  • Pink for celebration

  • White for purity and hope

  • Yellow and Orange for the marigold, the sun, light

  • Red representing for Christians, the blood of Jesus; and for the indigenous, the life blood of humans and animals

Flowers, symbolizing the brevity of life, are massed and fashioned into garlands, wreaths and crosses to decorate the altar and the grave. The marigold is the most traditional flower of the season. In Aztec times it was called the cempasuchil, the flower of 400 lives.

The fragrance of the cempasuchil leads the spirits home. Sometimes paths of the petals lead out of the cemetery and to the house to guide the spirits. A cross of marigold petals is formed on the floor so that as the spirit approaches the alter, he will step on the cross and expel his guilt.

Personal items of the spirits remembered, the child's toys, household saints, photos of those honored are added to the altar, along with the tools and utinsels used each day, serapes, guitars or drums, gourds for carrying water and cigars or cigarettes.

The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness.

Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death.

The altar, also called an "ofrenda," is the focal point to observing the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is constructed in the home and/or at the grave site or business establishment. Entire families construct altars as an annual commitment. Beginning in mid-October, children and adults prepare to welcome the souls of their dead relatives and loved ones, who return home at this time each year to make sure all is well and that they have not been forgotton.

Preparation of the altar can be expensive, since anything placed there for the visiting soul, including the dishes for food offerings, must be new. The altar may be placed on a straw mat on the floor or on a table.

The altar consist for four levels and four sides, representing the four stages of life, the four points of the earth, the four seasons, and the four mathematical points upon which the pyramids were built. Bases upon these four points the following items are used.