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Honoring the Departed: Dia de los Muertos Altar Essentials and Traditions

Honoring the Departed: Dia de los Muertos Altar Essentials and Traditions


Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is an occasion that celebrates the connection between the living and those who have embarked on their spiritual journey beyond this realm. At the core of this celebration lie the Dia de los Muertos altars, which are beautifully adorned structures that serve as sacred spaces of remembrance and homage to departed relatives.

Altars are woven with elements that carry the weight of stories, the resonance of ancient customs, the lyricism of poetry, and the enigmatic aura of mysticism. From glasses of water that quench the spirits’ thirst to the sacred incense that wafts through the air, each component of an altar bears its own profound significance.


This life source is offered to the spirits to quench their thirst after their long journey and to strengthen their return. In some cultures, it symbolizes the soul’s purity.


An element of purification, it ensures that the body remains uncorrupted during its journey and until its return the next year.


Ancient Mexicans used splinters from the ocote tree to make candles. Today, candles come in various forms, including wax candles and votives. Their flame signifies light, faith, and hope. It guides the spirits to their former places and illuminates their way back home. In several indigenous communities, each candle represents a departed soul. The number of candles on an altar depends on the number of souls a family wishes to welcome. Purple candles signify mourning, and placing four of them on a cross represents the four cardinal directions, helping the spirit find its way.

Copal and Incense

Indigenous people offered copal to their gods before the introduction of incense by the Spaniards. It elevates prayers and praises. Its fragrance is a sign of reverence and is used to cleanse spaces of evil spirits, ensuring a safe entry for the soul.


Symbols of celebration with their vibrant colors and fragrances, flowers decorate and scent the area during the spirit’s stay. The alhelí and nube are especially significant for their colors symbolize purity and tenderness, accompanying the spirits of children. In many parts of the country, paths of petals guide the deceased from the graveyard to the offerings and back. The yellow petals of the cempoalxóchitl (marigold) create a vivid, fragrant path for the spirits. Indigenous people believed in the marigold’s healing powers, but now it primarily decorates altars and graves. Over time, the flower is said to have lost its healing powers. In Nahuatl, “cempoalxóchitl” translates to “twenty flowers”, marking the remembrance of death.


This multi-purpose woven mat serves as a resting place for the spirits and as a tablecloth for the offerings.


Essential for children’s altars is the toy representation of the xoloizcuintle (Itzcuintle) dog. This dog is believed to assist souls in crossing the vast river Chiconauhuapan, the final step before reaching Mictlán.


A symbol of fraternity and kinship. The church views bread as the “Body of Christ.” Made in various shapes, bread holds a special place on the altar.

Gollete and Canes

Connected to the tzompantli, golletes are wheel-shaped breads placed on offerings and supported by cane pieces. The breads represent the skulls of vanquished enemies, and the canes symbolize the poles where they were impaled. This rich tradition provides a vivid and aromatic experience, connecting the living with the departed in a unique and significant way.

A Revered Portrait 

A portrait suggests the spirit that will visit us. However, it is concealed so that it can only be viewed through a mirror, symbolizing that while we can still ‘see’ our loved ones, they no longer exist in the physical realm.

See Also

Food Offerings

A central dish for many indigenous people across Mexico is mole, which can be made with chicken or turkey. Some also include barbacoa. These dishes release a tantalizing aroma, a feast prepared in honor of the remembered. The primary purpose of the delicious food is to delight the visiting spirit.

Sugar Skulls

Medium-sized sugar skulls are a nod to ever-present death. The smaller skulls are dedicated to the Holy Trinity, while the larger ones honor the Eternal Father.


Liquor is offered to help the spirit recall joyous occasions from their life and entice them to visit.

Cross Ashes or Salt 

A large cross made of ash or salt is positioned on the altar, allowing the spirit to atone for any unresolved transgressions upon arrival.


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