The Day of the Dead altar

Day of the dead is a mix of Christian tradition and pre-hispanic beliefs.  It originated as a Mayan ritual to honor and celebrate the lives of the dead. Day of the Innocents is a less known Mexican holiday, it is November 1: this day is to honor children and infants that have passed. It is called Dia De los Angelitos which literally translated means “Day of the little Angels”. The second day Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is meant to be a day to honor adult relatives and friends. During these two days families decorate the grave sites of deceased relatives, and build altars in their honor.

Building an altar is not only a way of honoring your dead, it is also a way of inviting them for a visit. Historically the altars where made to call back loved ones from the other side. This is why we decorate our altars with the things that the deceased once loved. We honer them with their favorite things in life to show the dead that they have not been forgotten.

Traditionally there are a number of items that make up an altar:

Images of the deceased: The image is usually in a nice frame and centrally placed on the top of the altar. Multiple images of the departed doing their favorite activities are appropriate as these illustrate who they were.

Food offerings: It is also customary to place food on the alters as an offering to the spirits. Traditional Mexican dishes such as Mole, Tamales, and Pan de Muertos (bread of the dead) are common. Bread of the dead is decorated sweet bread that is on placed alters or grave sites. Seasonal fresh fruit and more modern favorite foods can also be left as an offering.

Significant objects: Objects may also be displayed to symbolize the activities that the deceased once enjoyed. For example: you might include fishing lures of the individual fished a lot.

Flowers: It is customary to have Marigolds on your altar or at a grave site: the flowers strong smell is said to lead the spirits back to their families. Although Marigolds are customary any strong smelling flower will do.

Sugar Skulls: These skulls are decorated and made out of sugar and Corn syrup. They are then placed on altars or given as gifts to children.

Beverages: It is good to leave water or other beverages on your altar for the spirits so they may quench their thirst.

Papel Picado: These are decorative cut pieces of cray or tissue paper hung around the grave sites or altars.

Other iconic images: It is also traditional to place the images of saints,  other people that the deceased may have held dear, and whimsical skeletal figures.

Candles: There are many meanings for candles during the Day of the Dead celebrations; they represent hope, faith, prayer, mourning, and celebration.

Salt/incense: Salt is used as a purification element and incense is another way to entice the spirits.

Toiletries: Some believe that it is nice to provide the dead with items to wash up such as bars of soap and small towels.

Usually the altar is set up in two levels: the top representing heaven and the bottom earth. The images of the Dead are usually on the top level to represent their decent. All of these things can be a part of an altar but what matters most is how one remembers their loved ones. Each is something unique.

A Cemetery in Mexico on the Day of the Dead:

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Alter dedicated to the writer, CARLOS MONSIVAIS:

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