Day of the Dead Altar Elements


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.

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.


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.



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


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


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



These yellow-orange flowers, also called cempasúchil, are the traditional flower used to honor the dead. Their strong aroma is said to help lure a spirit back.



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.


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.




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.



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


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

Sugar Skulls


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.




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.

Hope you enjoy the celebration!


Photography: Abby Watkins / Cookies: Alicias Delicias