Día de los Muertos: Build an Altar

dayofthedeadaltarDay of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is celebrated in Mexico between October 31st and November 2nd. It’s a time to remember deceased loved ones and honor them. Day of the Dead is a festive occasion, and colorful holiday celebrating the lives of those who have passed on.

Building an altar is an important part of celebrating the holiday. Traditionally, families will build altars in their homes during the weeks leading up to November 1st, as a way to celebrate and remember loved ones who have passed to the other side. They are often quite beautiful creations, constructed with love and care.

Remember, there are no hard and fast rules about how the altar should be made. Be creative and make something that looks attractive and is meaningful to you. Altars are also meant to welcome returning spirits, so they include both personalized and traditional elements—including several dating to the Aztecs—that will guide an honoree on his journey from the land of the dead. Here’s how to offer a proper reception.

Whether simple or sophisticated, Day of the Dead altars and ofrenda all contain certain basic elements in common. Here are the ofrendas that you will typically see on a Día de los Muertos altar:

  • Candles – Candles are lit to welcome the spirits back to their altars.
  • Marigolds – These yellow-orange flowers, also called cempasúchitl, symbolize death. Their strong fragrance also help lead the dead back to their altars. Marigold petals may also be sprinkled on the floor in front of the altar, or even sprinkled along a path from the altar to the front door, so that the spirit may find her way inside.
  • Incense – Most commonly, copal incense, which is the dried aromatic resin from a tree native to Mexico. The scent is also said to guide the spirits back to their altars
  • Salt – represents the continuance of life.
  • Photo of the deceased – A framed photo of the dead person to whom the altar is dedicated, usually positioned in a prime spot on the altar.
  • Pan de muerto – Also known as “bread of the dead”, pan de muerto is a symbol of the departed.
  • Sugar skulls – As symbols of death and the afterlife, sugar skulls are not only given as gifts to the living during Day of the Dead, they are also placed as offerings on the altar.
  • Fresh fruit – whatever is in season — oranges, bananas, etc.day-of-the-dead-altarsIMG_0126


If you’re interested, please download an application today (aplicación en español). Altars can be built on October 26 and will be on display from October 27 to November 1.

Deadline for reserving space is Wednesday, October 19 at 6:00pm.

Returning application:

For more information about the our Day of the Dead program, please click here.

This program is sponsored by the Grand Rapids Public Library Foundation. Please consider a gift today.

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