Day of the Dead altars are built during Dia de los Muertos to honor the lives of those who have passed. They are often quite beautiful creations, constructed with love and care. Creating these altars is one of the most important traditions during Day of the Dead in Mexico and in Mexican-American communities around the globe.
On this page we'll talk about traditional Dia de los Muertos altars — what they look like, what items they include, and what purpose they serve.
To see an example of how to build a Day of the Dead altar, click here.
Dia de los Muertos altar
Photo credit: vmiremontes
Traditionally, every family in Mexico builds an altar on the days leading up to November 1. Some people even start weeks in advance and hire professionals to build elaborate altars. Other altars are more modest, but are still built with sincere, loving intentions.
On top of the altar, offerings are laid out for the dead — known as ofrenda in Spanish. These are items that the spirits will enjoy when they come back to earth to visit their living families and friends. People make an effort to lay out the best ofrenda they can afford, consisting of things the dead person enjoyed while s/he was alive.
It is common for families to spend a lot of money for the Day of the Dead, to buy new things to go on their altars. This is because they want the best for their deceased loved ones. They don't want their loved ones to show up after a long, tedious journey from the Other Side to be greeted by a meager, half-hearted altar!
Two-tiered Day of the Dead altar
Photo credit: Gruenemann
A Day of the Dead altar is usually arranged on a table top that is used exclusively for the altar, or it is built from stacks of crates. Altars have at least two tiers, sometimes more. The table or crates are draped with cloth (or sometimes a paper or plastic covering). An arch made of marigolds is often erected over top of the altar.
Whether simple or sophisticated, Day of the Dead altars and ofrenda all contain certain basic elements in common. Here are the ofrendas that you will typically see on a Dia de los Muertos altar:
Altar constructed from painted,
hollowed-out TV sets.
Photo credit: LAVisitor
Although Day of the Dead altars typically contain these same basic elements, altars can be highly individualized and creative. For instance, some altars may be draped with a string of Christmas lights while others may be constructed out of stacked, hollowed-out cereal boxes. Why not? Each altar is as unique as the person it was built to honor. The very nature of the holiday encourages this sense of creativity when it comes to honoring the dead.
In the past, altars were only built inside people's homes as a personal connection to their loved ones on the Other Side. These days, you can also find Day of the Dead altars in schools, government buildings, businesses, museums and libraries. When they are built in public places like this, their usual purpose is to celebrate Mexico's cultural heritage or to honor a well-known hero or figure.
Building Day of the Dead altars is also becoming a popular activity at schools in the US, because it is a fun, hands-on way of celebrating Mexico's' cultural heritage while allowing students to both learn and express their creativity.
Dia de los Muertos altar at a school in Mexico
Photo credit: Thelmadatter
If you'd like build your own altar, click here for a guide to Day of the Dead altars with tips and suggestions.
Return to the main Day of the Dead page.
Learn how to make sugar skulls, which you can place on your altar as offerings to the dead. You can also find tips on how to decorate sugar skulls with vibrant designs using colored icing, foil, beads, and more!