An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (2023)


Inside:An overview of a Day of the Dead altar, and what each element in an ofrenda means.

Day of the Dead welcomes the temporary return of souls from the afterlife, during November 1 and 2. Dí de Muertos is mainly known as a Mexican holiday, but versions of it are celebrated across most of Latin America.

The holiday is an intimate time to pause and remember those who have passed on, while celebrating their lives. A mix of Pre-Hispanic and Catholic beliefs and customs, Día de Muertos is full of colors, smells, family, and remembrance.

Day of the Dead a separate holiday from Halloween, even though the dates are close together. On the surface, they may seem to have common elements, but there are significant differences between Halloween and Day of the Dead.

It does share some traditions with All Soul’s day (or All Saint’s Day), and can be known by different names: Día de los Difuntos, and Día de Todos los Santos. November 1 honors children who have passed, and November 2 honors adults.

Altars can vary from simple to elaborate, and by region. This post covers the common elements found in most Day of the Dead altars, especially in Mexico.


1. What is a Day of the Dead altar?

2. What do you put on an ofrenda?

3. What do the elements of an altar represent?

4. See a tour of a Día de los Muertos altar.

What is a Day of the Dead Altar?

The most common element of Day of the Dead is the altar–ofrenda, in Spanish. It’s a sort of shrine that families create to honor and remember their departed ancestors and family members.

It usually consists of a table, boxes, or other surface draped by black or white cloths. The family decorates it with candles, bright colors, and meaningful items that reflect four elements: earth, water, fire, and air.

The basic altar can be constructed with different levels. Two levels can represent heaven and earth, while three can mean earth, purgatory, and heaven. In other places, people use seven levels to represent the steps up to heaven or the afterlife.

Some altars also include a path of flowers to guide spirits up to the altar.

(Video) Understanding Ofrendas | Day of the Dead

What items are on a Day of the Dead Altar?

Altars can vary, but they usually contain some core symbols. They altar is created with care, as each ofrenda reflects the individual souls they mean to honor and the region the family lives in.

Here’s a quick list of the main elements you might find on an ofrenda.

  1. Candles
  2. Pan de Muerto
  3. Flowers
  4. Religious Symbols
  5. Papel Picado
  6. Sugar Skulls
  7. Incense
  8. Personal Objects
  9. Water
  10. Salt
  11. Photographs
  12. Plate of Food
  13. Drinks
  14. Petate
  15. Fruits
  16. Arc

What do the elements on the Altar represent?

Let’s take a look at what each of these elements are and what they might symbolize.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (3)


Candles are an essential elemental ofofrendas. They keep vigil throughout the night, illuminating the way for visiting souls.

Candles symbolize hope and faith, along with the life element of fire. Some families place one candle per person that they are remembering, and other scatter them patterns.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (4)

Pan de Muerto

Pan de Muerto is a kind of sweet bread that can be found on most altars in Mexico. It is usually round, with the shape of crossed bones on the top.

There are variations on this. In Andean regions of South America, for example people make bread in the shape of a doll, known astantawawas(orguagas).

From Catholic traditions,pan de muertocan also symbolize the body of Jesus. It can also represent gifts from the earth and hospitality.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (5)


Marigold flowers, calledcempasúchil,are often placed around the altar in Mexico. Cempasuchil petals are strewn on the floor, their color and strong scent creating a path to guide visiting souls to the altar.

Some say that orange is the only color visible to souls from the afterlife, and so these “flowers of death” are an important component in altars and cemeteries. White flowers are also common.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (6)

Religious Symbols

As the day is also rooted in Catholic traditions, religious objects are often present on the altar.

(Video) Elements of a Day of the Dead Altar

Some families include objects such as images of saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, rosaries, and crucifixes.Different elements can be arranged in the shape of a cross as well.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (7)

Papel Picado

Papel picado is brightly colored tissue paper with cut-out designs, and it’s one of the most iconic Day of the Dead decorations. The designs are often images like skulls, saints, flowers, and candles.

Papel picado symbolizes the union between life and death, and the joy of life. As it flutters out in the streets and in cemeteries, it can represent the life element of air.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (8)

Sugar Skulls

Sugar skulls represent the presence of death, along with an acceptance that death is part of life. They are rooted indigenous traditions.

Some edible skulls, or calaveras, are made out of white sugar and brightly decorated. Calaveras can also be made of chocolate, wood, clay, or other substances.

Related: Sugar Skull Coloring Pages

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (9)


Originally, indigenous people in Mexico used copal incense in their religious ceremonies, made from the resin of trees.

With the arrival of the Spaniards, incense became popular and many altars include incense to aid with prayers. Incense is also said to cleanse the air, keeping bad spirits or negative energy away.

Aromatic herbs such as basil, rosemary, and chamomile can be used on the altar or to cleanse the space for the altar.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (10)

Personal Objects

Families commonly include meaningful items that belonged to the deceased person or that reflect what they liked. This might mean toys for children, an object from the person’s profession, or a hobby they enjoyed.

(Video) Day Of The Dead (Dia De Los Muertos) | Altar Decor, Symbols, Meanings.

If an altar is honoring a child’s soul,el izcuintleis often included. This is a toy puppy to make visiting children happy, and theizcuintleis said to help souls cross the riverChiconauhuapanon the way toMictlán(the Aztec underworld).

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (11)


A glass of water is set out to welcome thirsty souls after their long journey from the afterlife and back. Water can also symbolize purity.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (12)


Salt is another element of purification.

It is sometimes shaped into a cross to represent the four cardinal points (north, south, east, and west).Sometimes, ashes are used in place of salt.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (13)

Photographs or Paintings

Families often place portraits of their ancestors and relatives on the altar. These are often set up at the top of the altar or in a prominent place. When altars are set up for multiple relatives, there is usually a photo or portrait of each person.

Day Of The Dead Altar”(CC BY-SA 2.0)bySt0rmz

Plate of Food

Families often include traditional food and favorite dishes for their departed loved ones. It is said the aroma of the food feeds their hungry souls. The food is often served from earthen pots and dishes.

Some of the most common food and drinks include:

  • Mole (a Mexican dark sauce or marinade)
  • Hot chocolate
  • Atole (a corn drink)
  • Tamales (dough made from corn and steamed in a corn or banana leaf)
  • Candies (especially set out for children;dulce de alfeñiqueis common)
  • Pozole (traditional Mexican stew with hominy and meat)
  • Calabaza en tacha (candiedpumpkin)
  • Arroz con leche (rice with milk)
  • Horchata (sweet drink with rice and milk)


Many familes include drinks like Tequila pulque, or mezcal, an agave-based liquor, to welcome and cheer up the visiting adult souls.People who smoked may also have cigarettes placed on their altar.

(Video) Altar / Ofrenda Elements and Symbolism | Day of the Dead / Día de los Muertos


These are woven mats made from palm trees, and set on the floor to provide a place to rest.

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (15)


In addition to specific dishes of food, fruit is commonly placed on altars as an element of earth and what it provides for us.

Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca”(Public Domain)bylisafree54

An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (16)


Some altars include an arc that stretches along the back of the ofrenda. It can be adorned with flores de cempasúchil or lights.

Tour Some Altars

Seeing examples of altars is of course the best way to experience them.

This site includes dozens of examples ofreal-life Día de Muertos ofrendas.

This video is in Spanish, but it offers an intimate look into how a family in Mexico creates their altar.

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An Introduction to the Day of the Dead Altar and Elements (17)

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What are the elements of a day of the dead altar? ›

Many people make altars or “ofrendas” (offerings) in their homes to honor their loved ones who have died. Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind.

What do the four elements for the Day of the Dead represent? ›

Water to satisfy the thirst of the dead who visit; Fire burning in candles; Earth in food and other items for the departed; and Wind, which is represented by the papel picado, paper flowers and other paper elements that move with the wind.

What is the meaning of an altar Day of the Dead? ›

Day of the Dead altars are made as a way of remembering and honoring deceased friends and family. The altars help guide the spirits back to the land of the living on the Noche de Muertos on the night of November 2.

What do the 7 levels of the altars represent? ›

The basic altar can be constructed with different levels. Two levels can represent heaven and earth, while three can mean earth, purgatory, and heaven. In other places, people use seven levels to represent the steps up to heaven or the afterlife.

What are 5 things that can be at an altar? ›

Altar items
  • Athame.
  • Broom.
  • Candles.
  • Cauldron.
  • Chalice.
  • Incense.
  • Pentacle.
  • Wand.

What do the elements of an altar represent? ›

The altar includes the four main elements of nature – Earth, Wind, Water and Fire. Earth is represented by the crop: The soul is fed by the various earthly aromas. Placing fruit or favorite family dishes on the altar provides nourishment for the beloved souls.

What do the three levels of the altar represent? ›

The levels used to build the ofrenda represent different stages of human existence. A two-level ofrenda represents earth and heaven. A three-level ofrenda includes purgatory. A seven-level ofrenda is the most traditional; it represents the necessary steps to rest in peace.

What are the four elements spiritually? ›

The Elements: An Introduction. The wisdom gleaned from the natural elements—fire, earth, air, and water—is a foundation of healing practices in Chinese, Native American, Vedic, and Tibetan cultures.

What is the spiritual meaning of altar? ›

An altar is a raised area in a house of worship where people can honor God with offerings. It is prominent in the Bible as "God's table," a sacred place for sacrifices and gifts offered up to God.

What are 5 facts about the Day of the Dead? ›

5 things you might not know about Día de los Muertos
  • Day of the Dead can be traced to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. ...
  • Ofrendas (or 'offerings') are central to the celebration. ...
  • Food is a key part of the ofrenda. ...
  • Marigolds are believed to serve as the pathway to the mortal world. ...
  • Day of the Dead is celebrated worldwide.
Nov 2, 2022

What are 5 common offerings for Day of the Dead? ›

Breaking down the significance of ofrenda traditions and the history behind it.
  • Water. ...
  • Candles. ...
  • Papel picado (perforated paper) ...
  • Tapetes de arena (sand sculptures or tapestries) ...
  • Portraits. ...
  • Salt. ...
  • Flor de muerto (flowers of the dead) ...
  • Pan de muerto (bread of the dead)
Oct 27, 2021

What color symbolizes Day of the Dead? ›

The colors yellow and orange are both used in this holiday to represent marigolds, the sun, and light. Marigolds are the flowers of the dead and are thought to help the deaceased find their way back home due to their strong scent and bright colors. The color red is used to represent blood.

What are the symbols of the dead? ›

14 Symbols of Death From Our Collection
  • King vulture: Vultures are scavengers that eat the flesh of dead bodies. ...
  • Mummy:
  • Bat skeleton: ...
  • La Catrina:
  • Hearse:
  • Memento Mori:
  • Death's head hawk moth: ...
  • Skull x-ray:
Oct 8, 2015

What are the parts of an altar called? ›

The component parts of a fixed altar in the liturgical sense are the table (mensa), the support (stipes) and the sepulchrum. (See ALTAR-CAVITY.) The table must be a single slab of stone firmly joined by cement to the support, so that the table and support together make one piece.

What are the 3 altars in the Bible? ›

The first altar was the Altar of Burnt Offering (mizbeach ha'olah; Exodus 30:28), also called the Brasen Altar (Exodus 39:39), the Outer Altar (mizbeach hachitzona), the Earthen Altar (mizbeach adamah), the Great Altar (mizbeach hagedola) and the Table of the Lord (Malachi 1:7).

What are the two types of altar? ›

Architecturally, there are two types of altars: Those that are attached to the eastern wall of the chancel, and those that are free-standing and can be walked around, for instance when incensing the altar.

What is needed for a spiritual altar? ›

Crystals, gems, and stones. Jewelry or other precious items with personal meaning. Divination tools such as a deck of tarot cards, runes, oracle cards, or a crystal ball. Other natural and found objects like shells, bones, and feathers.

How do you represent elements? ›

The chemical symbol of an element is the short form of its chemical name.
  1. The symbol of an element is written in English script.
  2. The first letter of the English name is used as the symbol for the elements. ...
  3. A pair of letters can be used when the initial letter of two or more elements are the same.

What are the spiritual elements of life? ›

Central to this form of spiritual experience are the 5 elements — Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit.

What are the steps of the altars and what does it mean? ›

No matter how large the altars are, they must include representations of the elements of air, water, fire, and earth. An altar with two steps represents the earth and sky. With three steps, the altar depicts purgatory, earth, and heaven, or the Holy Trinity.

What is the power of an altar? ›

An altar is a place of sacrifice and a power point to draw spiritual and supernatural strength (Genesis 8:20-21). Altars are places of separation where we separate ourselves to God and separate from curses and generational traits.

What are the 5 sacred elements? ›

These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Indian Vastu shastra philosophy and Buddhist beliefs; in addition, the classical Chinese elements (五行, wu xing) are also prominent in Japanese culture, especially to the influential Neo-Confucianists during the medieval Edo period.

What are the heavenly elements? ›

Proceeding outward from the earth they were the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Each sphere was the seat of one of the seven chemical elements: silver, mercury, copper, gold, iron, tin, lead. Each heavenly sphere resonated with a note of the western musical scale: re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do.

What is the meaning of altar in one word? ›

An altar is a holy table in a church or temple.

What is another word for altar? ›

What is another word for altar?
communion tablechancel table
holy tableLord's table
table of the Lord

What makes Day of the Dead unique? ›

Traditions are different by Country

The act of honoring the dead is widely celebrated around the world but Day of the Dead is unique in its traditions: the ofrenda, the meaning of life and death, the use of calaveras, the style influenced by La Catrina, and more recently, the festivals in the streets.

What is the goal of an ofrenda? ›

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.

Why is there water at the altar? ›

Usually a glass with fresh water is set on the altar so the spirits can quench their thirst after their long journey. The use of water has several meanings. It reflects the purity of the souls. And it can also reflect the regeneration circle of life and death.

What is the flower that represents the Day of the Dead? ›

Flowers, which symbolize the brevity of life, are an essential element of the Day of the Dead ofrenda. Though many different flowers are used in Day of the Dead celebrations, one flower has become a national symbol for the festival: the marigold.

What is the flower of the dead? ›

Marigolds. Often called “flowers of the dead,” cempasúchil, or flor de muerto, these bright orange and yellow flowers' fragrance is said to attract souls to the altar. Their bright and cheery color also celebrate life instead of feeling bitter about death.

What do the skulls represent in Day of dead? ›

Each sugar skull represents a departed loved one and is usually placed on an altar — an ofrenda — or even a gravestone as an offering to the spirit of the dead. Sugar skulls are often decorated with the person's name.

What color symbolizes death? ›

Black – Western World

Wearing dark colours for mourning has long been a tradition in many parts of the western world, in particular large parts of Europe and North America. The association of the colour black with death and loss is centuries old and is believed to have originated during Roman times.

What symbol represents life and death? ›

The Ankh. The ankh is an ancient Egyptian symbol that represents life, death, and rebirth. The ankh is often depicted with a looped cross at the top, representing eternity and immortality.

What trees symbolize death? ›

Yew. Yew is typically associated with the dead and is often found in graveyards. The Druids saw yew trees as the guardians of the dead. In Greek mythology, yew trees are associated with the Greek goddess Hecate, liberator of souls after death.

What are the 3 layers of an ofrenda? ›

Ofrendas are often divided among three tiers:
  • The top level features images of the lost loved one and/or photos of saints.
  • The second tier is filled with favorite food items. There's pan de muerto, pan dulce, candy, cereal, liquor and more.
  • The bottom tier is the most practical.
Oct 30, 2013

What are the levels of an altar? ›

Many altars are made with three levels, which represent Earth, Heaven and Purgatory. Some altars are made with seven levels to represent the steps souls must take to rest in peace. The boxes or levels are then covered with either white or black cloths.

What flower is used for Day of the Dead? ›

Flowers, which symbolize the brevity of life, are an essential element of the Day of the Dead ofrenda. Though many different flowers are used in Day of the Dead celebrations, one flower has become a national symbol for the festival: the marigold.

What is the difference between an altar and an ofrenda? ›

The word ofrenda means offering in Spanish. They are also called altares or altars, but they are not for worship. Some people mistakenly think that Mexicans that set up Day of the Dead ofrendas for their defunct relatives are actually worshiping them.


1. Building the Ofrenda: 3 levels of altar have symbolism on Day of the Dead
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2. Day of the Dead in Mexico - How we make The Ofrenda in our home
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3. Master Altar maker Ofelia Esparza & Day of the Dead, BORDERS episode
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4. Coco explains the Día de los Muertos (Mexican Day of the Dead)
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5. Building the Ofrenda: Nature's four elements important on Day of the Dead
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6. Day of the Dead Ofrenda Explained
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