More Than Just Decoration

Every piece of a Day of the Dead altar has meaning

Every November, on Day of the Dead, Mexican families wait for their deceased loved ones to pop back up so they can welcome and entertain them with the dishes and drinks they enjoyed in life. The Mexican tradition says that the deceased make a long journey every year to visit the living, and are welcomed with festivities, food and some elements before they go back to their resting place.


The altar de muertos (altar of the dead) is the main attraction of this event, as its purpose is to help the souls find their way home. These are often huge, multi-tiered affairs.

The Day of the Dead altars for children are set up on the eve of October 31st with hoary stock (a white flowering plant) and baby's breath. Their white color symbolizes the purity of the children’s souls.

Deceased children are treated with sweet tamales, hot chocolate, atole (a corn-based hot drink), fruits, candies and toys left on the altar. Every element in the altar must be suitable for children.

On the eve of November first, these elements are eaten or removed from the altar, and it is time to honor the deceased adults. Special Day of the Dead flowers (it’s believed that their scent will make the returning souls feel welcomed and happy) are added to the altar, along with spicy tamales, alcoholic drinks and cigarettes.

The altars have many components, a mixture of pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions that combine to celebrate death. These include:

Different levels. Either two, three or seven levels. In some areas, altars are made with two levels that symbolize heaven and earth; in others they are made with three levels for heaven, purgatory and earth; and there are places where altars with seven levels are placed, each of these levels represents the steps a soul has to make to get to heaven.

Candles: Candles show the souls their way to the altar and back to the dead world; they symbolize the light, hope and faith.

Arches: These represent the passage between the underworld and the living world, usually decorated with flowers, sometimes fruit.

Scents: Copal was considered a sacred essence in pre Hispanic culture, so it’s a must in altars. Other scents come from cempasúchil flowers and herb infusions like laurel, thyme and rosemary.

Food: This must be to the spirit’s liking, since they can only enjoy it once a year. Typically, tamales and mole are present, as well as sugar skulls, chocolate and amaranth candy, which also represents that death must be sweet. Pan de muerto (dead bread) is a more modern element.

Personal objects: On the earth levels of the altar, the deceased’s personal objects are usually placed, especially if these were often used or very special to that person. There is also a picture of him or her front and center.

Religious symbols: These must be on the top levels, and include crosses, saint figurines, virgins and angels.

Ash cross: This is for when the spirit arrives, where he or she can throw pending guilt.

Salt: This is to purify the soul, in case the person never got baptized.

Also, some kind of dish filled with water and a towel must be placed so the deceased can wash up for the party, and some chairs and a petate (Mexican bedroll made from palm leaves) must be placed nearby for the soul to rest a little bit.