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Building & Making / Creating a Day of the Dead Altar

(a Dia de los Muertos Ofrenda)

above - a day of the dead altar made by Susan for her dead relatives.

Today, in the United States, the fastest growing holiday (that isn't an official holiday) is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – a holiday from South of the border that while it immediately follows our Halloween, is actually a time of celebrating the dead.  Deceases friends, relatives, folk heroes and even pets are honored from October 31 – November 2nd of each year.  Altars are usually set up between the middle of October through November 2nd. 

For a better description of dias de los Muertos, visit our article on the Days of the Dead.

Typically families clean gravesites and many villages and pueblos have all night candle-lit vigils at the cemetery, however the most visible aspect is the public and home altars.  The word ofrenda means offering in Spanish. They are also called altares or altars, but they are not for worshiping. Some people mistakenly think that Mexicans that set up altars for their defunct relatives are actually worshiping them. Nothing further from the truth. The vast majority of Mexicans are Christian Catholics, so they only worship God.

Most often altars are constructed for immediate ancestors or relatives, but can be for anyone – even folk heroes like Frida Kahlo or Mother Theresa.  Anyone who has had a positive impact on your life can be the subject of your Day of the Dead altar.  Altars are also used to show your support for others.  Dia de los Muertos altars made to those who have died due to breast cancer, AIDS related illnesses, to those lost in the World Trade Towers attack and the students at Columbine are just a few examples. 

Building altars mixes ancient meso-American religions (mostly Aztec but blended from a wide range of Central American Indian beliefs) with modern Christianity.  There is no witchcraft involved – those creating altars are not trying to raise the dead – they are already with us!

A Dia de los Muertos altar can be as simple or as elaborate as you like and have the time and resources to construct. The purpose of an altar is remembrance - with that in mind feel free to do what you think your honoree would enjoy. While we have included a few guidelines, these are by no means rules to live by. They are a starting place, where you end up is completely up to you.

While death is a topic largely avoided in the USA, the remembrance of deceased ancestors and loved ones is traditional among diverse cultures around the globe, often marked by lighting candles or lamps and laying out offerings of food and drink. Such celebrations can be traced back as far as the glory days of ancient Egypt when departed souls were honored during the great festival of Osiris.

Are those who create altars trying to communicate with the dead?  Yes, and no. There are two aspects to altar making on el Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). The first is to communicate with those that are no longer physically with us- this isn’t any different from people going to visit the graves of their dearly departed. It isn’t about witchcraft, it is about having an eternal dialogue with those that we love. The second aspect is the connection it provides us to the world at large and to our place in the after-life. By building an altar we are acknowledging that we go on and that not being physically present isn’t the same as being gone.

Some people take up entire corners of their homes with Day of the Dead altars, others use a simple end table dressed up with fabric and other items. The point is, size doesn’t really matter, what matters is the heart you put into it.   

Traditionally any items (including the plates or dishes used) placed on the altar should be new.  Many of the other items (the food, garlands, flowers, incense and candles) are meant to be ephemeral (lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory – not permanent). Thus, traditionally new items such as flowers, foods, papel picado (paper banners) are purchased new each year rather than being saved year to year.  Not everything has to be new – favorite toys for children, a favorite deck of cards, comb or book of a loved one can be used on the altar, as well, and kept.  Many people in the U.S. keep items from year to year, however in Mexico, as stated above, these items are bought new each year - they are meant to be impermanent and it is believed that to use old or used pieces dishonors the dead. 



  • Set a table against a wall  (you can also build your altar on the floor).


  • Place boxes, books or crates on the table to create different levels and cover with clean linens or colored cloth of your choice (the levels represent the stages spirits go though to reach Paradise).  You can decide how many levels, however many traditional altars are created with four levels each of which is stepped, just like a pyramid with the top level being the smallest and the bottom level being the largest. 


  • Add a bar of soap, a dish of water and hand towel (it’s a long, dusty journey and being dead can be messy – plus the dead like to freshen up before enjoying a meal).


  • Have some pillows and extra blankets around the house - so that your spirits can rest after their long journey. 


  • Add Paper or plastic banners called Papel picado which are crafted from thin tissue paper.  Zanzibar offers dozens of designs:  from those that are themed for dia de los Muertos, to happy designs with flowers and birds, birthday and marriage themed banners, Frida Kahlo, Virgin de Guadalupe, and many others!  Visit our Papel Picado pages for more information!


  • Add flowers, flower petals and flower garlands (traditionally yellow and orange marigolds called Cémpasuchil).  These flowers can be fresh cut, planted or paper cutout flowers or even silk flowers.  Traditionally, fragrant cut flowers are used.  In many homes in southern Mexico, the flower petals will actually be dropped on the path from the avenue into the home... allowing the spirits to follow the path.  Traditional flowers such as marigolds often have a strong, pungent smell - something that the departed are attracted to. 


  • Add a glass of water to the altar, as well as candles (called Velas - please note that all burning candles should be monitored – blow them out when you go to bed - typically at least one candle is added for each expected spirit - but the more the merrier!), and incense.  Traditionally copal (natural tree resin incense) was and is used traditionally but any fragrance of incense that you like (or who the altar is being built for) will do. (These items represent the elements: earth, water, fire, and air.)  The burning incense and light from the candles will help attract the spirits to your altar. 


  • Place photos of the person(s) or pet the altar is commemorated to.  Many also place pictures of saints and religious icons and figures as well as crosses.  Many altars also have a picture of Christ or the Virgin Mary (Virgin de Guadlupe). 


  • Add any  items that the honored dead were fond of – favorite toys for children, perhaps a favorite watch, book or jewelry of an adult.  You can also give small gifts to your loved ones.  Coloring books for children, a necktie for uncle Harold. 


  • Place any food or drinks that the deceased enjoyed while they were alive. (This is to welcome the spirits to the party.)  This could be non alcoholic sodas for the children and wine or hard liquor for adults!  Food for the little ones shouldn’t be too spicy – and make sure you put lots of candy and sweets on your altar.  Traditionally corn (maize), salt (sal, the spice of life), corn (Maíz), sugar (Azúcar), sugar cane, bananas (Plátanos), Oranges (Naranjas), Apples, (Manzanas), Bread of the dead (Pan de Muerto), Tamales, Mole sauce, Rice, Beans (Frijoles) and other traditional Mexican dishes and favorite dishes of the deceased are added.  For traditional recipes, visit our Mexican Recipes pages


  • Decorated sugar skulls (Calaveras de Azucar – often decorated with colorful frosting, mylar and often with the deceased person’s name written with frosting).  While sugar skulls ARE edible, most people don't eat them - they take a lot of handling! In Mexico, the children await the sugar skulls all year long - but truly it is one of the only treats they get all year - if you want something sweet buy a snickers bar - they taste a lot better!  :)  Gummy skull and skeleton candies, chocolate molded skulls, catrinas and skeletons are also placed on the altars.  Zanzibar sells molds for making your own sugar skulls. You can purchase them in our gallery or online at and you can read the step-by-step instructions by visiting our making Mexican sugar Skulls for Day of the Dead pages.  We also sell the molds for making the chocolates, too!  Learn about making the chocolate sugar skull molds here


  • Altars are meant to be fun, joyful representations of the duality of life and death, thus many have whimsical skulls and skeleton figures placed prominently.  These Calaveras often are shown doing traditional jobs that perhaps the departed did while they were alive (small skeletons are available from almost every profession  - from construction workers, doctors, businessmen to pole dancers!)  Often meant to be entertaining, these small figures add a little fun and joy to the altar.  Toy coffins (Juguetee Ataúdes) and retablos are also prominently displayed.  Zanzibar always has a very large selection of figures in stock - visit our gallery for the best selection!


Celebrate life and the joy of the persons you are remembering!  ...and on the afternoon or evening of November 2nd, you and your family and friends can enjoy the altar food and candies!