Building a Dia de los Muertos altar is an important part of celebrating Mexico's most famous holiday, Day of the Dead. Traditionally, families will build altars in their homes during the weeks leading up to November 1st, as a way to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed to the other side.
These days, Day of the Dead altars are also created in libraries, museums and classrooms in both Mexico and the United States, as a way of honoring Mexican traditions and encouraging cross-cultural understanding.
On this page I'll show you how I built a Day of the Dead altar for my father, who passed away in 2009. It's decorated with traditional Day of the Dead symbols and objects that were meaningful to him. I'll explain how the altar was constructed and what the objects on it symbolize, as well as provide tips and ideas on making your own altar.
Before I show you the details, let's take a look at the finished altar.
Day of the Dead altars can be elaborate and expensive, or they can be relatively simple; what matters is the act of honoring and remembering your lost loved ones.
Your altar can begin
with a simple desk.
You can build an altar on a table, desk, coffee table or on a stack of crates. The main thing is that altars usually have multiple tiers which can be created using whatever materials or objects you can find.
When deciding on where to build my Dad's altar, I chose a plain desk in my spare bedroom. I covered the desk with a white sheet (somewhat crinkled from my closet) and created the tiers by using some old boxes that were gathering dust in my garage. I then completed the look by covering the boxes with a red blanket. In his later years, my dad had a full white beard and acted professionally as Santa Claus. So draping the white sheet and red blanket over the altar was the first step in personalizing the altar, since Santa is strongly associated with the colors red and white.
There aren't any hard and fast rules when it comes to decorating a Dia de los Muertos altar. The main idea is to decorate it in a way that honors the dead and reflects their character and personality. As a result, every altar is different. Take the opportunity to be creative and truly recreate the memory of your lost loved one. As they say, "it's the thought that counts."
Here's a tighter shot of my Dad's altar and you can see all kinds of random items that are relevant to who he was.
In the sections below I'll look at three types of things you can use to decorate your altar. You can use
There are a range of Day of the Dead symbols that are meaningful to Mexicans and visible everywhere in the weeks leading up to the Dias de los Muertos.
Because these symbols are tied to Mexican belief systems, you may not find them meaningful yourself. That's okay, you don't need to use them. I included some of these symbols in my altar because they represent important concepts (like a healthy appreciation for death) and because they're colorful!
Marigolds (cempasuchitl in Spanish) are orange and yellow flowers that symbolize death and help guide the dead back to earth. They are so bright and vibrant that they look great on an altar, regardless of what meaning they hold. You can place them in vases or sprinkle their petals around the altar. Marigolds are expensive to buy where I live, so I settled for some artificial marigolds which I can also use next year. If you're building a Dia de los Muertos altar for someone who had a favorite type of flower, it would be perfect to decorate their altar with that flower.
I also made some sugar skulls which are famous Day of the Dead icons that symbolize death and the beyond. They're given as gifts to the living or as offerings to the dead, and have become worldwide symbols of Dia de Los Muertos. Sugar skulls have also heavily influenced my art.
Skulls are sometimes tailored to an individual, either by a physical resemblance or with their name on the forehead. I made the skull on the left specifially for my Dad. I used red, white and pink icing and sequins to create a "Santa-inspired" sugar skull. I used royal icing to write "Dad" on the skull's forehead, and used red feathers to represent a Santa hat.
Candles are frequently placed on altars because when lit they welcome spirits back to the land of the living. On a more secular note, candles simply look cool at night.
Papel picado (perforated paper) is a Mexican art form that can add some color to your altar. It's made by hand-cutting simple or incredibly intricate designs into brightly-colored tissue paper. I made the example below, and with just a little instruction you can also make your own.
Other Day of the Dead symbols you can use are salt, which represents the continuance of life, and incense, the scent of which helps guide the dead back from the afterlife.
My Dad's cane
The main purpose of a Dia de los Muertos altar is to honor the dead and to help you remember and appreciate their life. It's common, therefore, to decorate an altar with the dead's former possessions and with objects that symbolize things they valued, owned or found meaningful. My Dad's altar is full of things he valued or objects that are symbolic of his personality.
Photos of the deceased are perhaps the most effective way to vividly remember the dead. I used as many photos as I could fit on this altar, and am considering building a much bigger altar next year just so I can display all the photos I have in frames and albums.
I mentioned earlier that the sheet and blanket I used to cover up the desk are white and red because in his later years my father enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus, which suited his white, bushy beard.
My Dad in the Navy and his Santa patch.
To further this theme, I adorned his altar with photos of him wearing his Santa suit, and also included some of his favorite Santa-related possessions, like his Santa cane (on the right), his cap, and his "Royal Order of Santa Claus" patch.
My father served in the U.S. military for 24 years, so I included a handsome portrait of him from his Navy days, and a military patch that he would have worn on his uniform.
I also included lots of things he enjoyed, like junk food, which falls under the category of offerings.
Mexicans believe that during the Day of the Dead, the spirits of the dead will return to earth to visit with their families. It's a long hard journey from the afterlife back to earth, so traditional Dia de los Muertos altars include nourishment and refreshments for the returning souls. These items are called "offerings" (ofrenda in Spanish).
You can start off by making sure they have water to drink. My Dad loved soda, so in addition to a glass of water, I also offered a bottle of cola for him to enjoy.
They'll also be hungry when they arrive, so food is important. I baked some traditional Day of the Dead Bread (pan de muerto in Spanish) which is a Mexican sweet bread commonly decorated with colored icing. I also included some of my Dad's favorite junk foods, like Oatmeal Creme Pies, Sweet Sixteen Donuts, and M&Ms. He no longer has a body, so now he can eat what he likes without worrying!
It's okay if you want to eat some of these foods later, but Mexicans believe that they will be devoid of taste and nutritional value because they have already nourished the spirit of the dead.
Some toiletries I placed among his possessions.
The dead may also like some toiletries to freshen up. I offered my Dad a toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, and some soap. You can include anything else the dead may have used a lot, like a favorite hairbrush.
You can also include any possession or object the dead might like to use. For example, I have the book my Dad was reading when he passed away. I leaned it against the base of the altar in case he wants to pick up where he left off.
So that's one example of how to make a Dia de los Muertos altar. There are many possibilities of how to make a Dia de los Muertos altar because it is the perfect opportunity for creative expression. Each altar will be as unique as the person creating it and the person it is built for.
If you're thinking of building a Dia de los Muertos altar but you have reservations about it ("What will other people think? Does it go against my religion?" Etc), just remember that you don't have to embrace the Day of the Dead to build an altar. You don't need to believe that the spirit of the dead will actually visit you (and require refreshments). You don't even need to believe that there's an afterlife.
A Dia de los Muertos altar is like a shrine to your dead loved one, which is actually quite common in households across the world, no matter what religion or beliefs people have. Have you ever visited someone's house and noticed a shelf with pictures of their dead relatives, perhaps surrounded by mementoes? That's basically the same concept as a Day of the Dead altar - it's a way of honoring and remembering the dead. It is also a therapeutic process as well, helping people feel a strong, healthy connection to the spirits of their dead loved ones.