Creating a Day of the Dead Altar

My 2020 Dia de los Muertos / Day of the Dead altar

It’s November 1 which means it’s time for Day of the Dead or Día de los Muertos!  I’ve always received a lot of questions about Day of the Dead.  What is it?  Why do people wear skeleton masks?  What is the significance of an altar?  I always tell people that it’s not morbid or spooky.  It’s simply a celebration of our ancestors – nuestros antepasados – and I explain that it is generally associated with the Catholic celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. 

I love how more and more people I know are creating their own altars or ofrendas at home.  I think people worry when they get started that they are doing it wrong.  But I tell them there is no right or wrong way to create an altar because they can take many forms, shapes and sizes.  I’ve had an altar in my home for a number of years using my dining room buffet.  I add a two-tiered shelf to give it a few levels and make room for the items I display that are associated with different family members who have passed on.  Some years, I have so much I want to display that I carry it over to my dining room table and even my living room coffee table!  

One day I would really like to create an altar that displays the seven levels.  I remember being at the Day of the Dead celebration in Birmingham several years ago and a lady was explaining the seven levels to me.  Her altar was so intriguing and I had never seen one like it before.  Until that time, I didn’t really know about “the levels.”  She mentioned that altars should include the elements of water, air, fire and earth.  Most altars represent the earth and sky (or heaven).  That’s simple enough, right?  Other altars add another level – purgatory – or the underworld. 

The seven levels build upon each other and look something like this:

  1.  The Highest level would feature a photo of the Virgin Mary and/or a favorite Saint.  This is done to protect the altar.
  2. The second level would feature candles and lights.  The lights represent a guide to help souls leave purgatory.  The light also represents the light of faith and hope.
  3. The third level features toys for children who have passed and salt which is used as purification for the soul of the deceased
  4. The fourth level is all about the Pan de Muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar skulls – an offering of food to the spirits.
  5. The fifth level features favorite foods and drinks of our loved ones – for instance, you might place favorite fruits, tequila or beer, and other favorites.  This represents the good times with our loved ones.
  6. The sixth level is where you see all the photos of loved ones who have passed.
  7. At the seventh level you will find the Aztec marigold flowers called Cempasuchitl flowers or flor de Muertos.  Some altars will feature a cross made of the marigold flowers on the ground.  The scent of these flowers is thought to guide our ancestors and are placed on the ground as a pathway for the souls. 

The most common altars are divided three sections – the entrance “la entrada”, the mid-tier section with a table of offerings, and the highest-level representing heaven, where photos of the dead are hung along with images of favorite saints, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jesus.

As you can see, there is a lot of symbolism associated with Día de los Muertos.  I’m sure it can seem intimidating if you are trying to create your own altar for the first time.  When I started making mine, I searched the internet for photos of the “correct” way to do it and soon realized there isn’t one.  The truth is, you should feel free to create one however you wish.  The bottom line is that you are doing this to honor your loved ones and it’s a special remembrance for you and your family. 

Here are a few photos of my altar to hopefully inspire you to make your own if you are on the fence about it!  Seeing what other people have pulled together or created always inspires me!

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