Day of the Dead Altar Elements

This post may include affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

dia de los muertos altar filled with traditional alter elements Day of the Dead Altar Elements

When is Día de los Muertos

November 1 is “Dia de los Inocentes” (Day of the Innocents) and also known as Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). November 2 is Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Día de los Muertos is a time of celebration and remembrance of loved ones who have passed away, much like Memorial Day in the United States.

What is Día de los Muertos

Día de los Muertos is a traditional Mexican holiday observed to honor and prepare offerings for family and friends who have passed away. It’s a time to guide loved ones through their spiritual journey and a time to remember those who have passed.

day of the dead bride and groom Day of the Dead Altar Elements

You do not have to display an elaborate altar to honor your loved ones. Whether simple or sophisticated, altars all contain certain basic elements in common.


photos on day of the dead altar and personal belongings

Place snapshots or framed photos of departed loved ones.


Sage and other incenses are frequently burned to clear the space of negative energy and help the dead find their way.

Deceased Belongings

cross and angel for for day of the dead altar elements

Favorite toys and tools of the trade create a familiar setting for the return. Religious symbols, their favorite CD, or album can also be included.

Papel Picado

papel picado day of the dead altar with Latina food blogger Emmy winner

Delicately decorated tissue paper represents wind and the fragility of life.


marigold flowers to celebrate from Day of the Dead Altar Elements

Flowers, preferably marigolds, also called cempasúchil, are the traditional flower used to honor the dead. Their strong aroma is said to help lure a spirit back. If you can not find marigolds, make vibrant paper flowers.


day of the dead cookies altar for dia de los muertos elements

The most popular dish to celebrate this holiday is Pan de Muerto, which is a traditional sweet bread decorated with pieces of dough that represent bones.

pan dulce sweet bread platter day of the dead elements

Other traditional foods that you would find on altars include pan dulce, atole, mole, and tamales. The ancestor’s favorite meals are also placed on the altar as offerings.

food and candles on altar elements


food for Day of the Dead Altar Elements

Place whatever is in season. On our altar I placed foods my maternal grandma grew and remind me of her – apples, pomegranates, quince, cactus paddles, and prickly pears.

And this wooden bowl was my paternal grandmas. I used to sit in this bowl and scoot in it like a sled on the carpet when I was a baby.


wine paper picador Day of the Dead Altar Elements

Water is the source of life and said to quench the thirst of the dead when they return from a long journey. Other common drinks are hot chocolate, cerveza (beer), tequila, or place favorite drinks of the deceased to refresh the spirits of a spirit after their journey.

Religious Symbols

cross and rosary Day of the Dead Altar Elements

A Christian cross, a rosary, and statues or pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary are often placed on an altar.

Sugar Skulls

sugar skull for day of the dead elements

Decorate the altar with skeletons and sugar skulls, which symbolize happiness. As symbols of death and the afterlife, elaborately decorated skulls are crafted from pure sugar and given to friends as gifts.

The colorful designs represent the vitality of life and individual personality. This year our children made sugar skulls for the person they honored and placed them as offerings on the altar.

sugar skull day of the dead elements for altar


candles lit on altar for dia de los muertos

Candles represent fire and are a light guiding spirits back to visit the land of the living.

Día de los Muertos is observed as a day to reunite with loved ones who have passed, therefore, food offerings are traditionally made to celebrate. 

Invite close family members to continue the celebration together. Ask those invited to bring along a photo of someone they would like to honor and commemorate, and have them share special memories about them or the history behind the photo. Continue the celebration by listening and dancing to music that was dear to your loved ones.

If you don’t have time or the materials to make an elaborate altar, you can make a simple one with photos, candles, flowers, and fruit. The important thing is that it’s meaningful to you.

Hope you enjoy the celebration!

hawk spirit animal Catrina boy day of the dead altar

Photography: Abby Watkins / Cookies: Alicias Delicias