Altar Offering for Day of the Dead and Meaning

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Learn how to set up a day of the dead altar offering at home using all the symbolism and adding our own to fit our family and beliefs for remembering the departed.

How to set up an altar for Day of the Dead
How to set up an altar for Day of the Dead

In the Mexican culture, we believe that when we remember and celebrate the departed their souls never die, and they continue alive in the spirit. That is why setting up an altar offering at-home adding a picture that best represents the departed and several items we help them in their journey to come back home.

But when to start planning the altar offering?

Candles lit the way of the souls important addition to the altar

On October 28th begins the arrival of the dead who tragically lost their lives. On October 30th and 31st, dedicated to non-baptized children. On November 1st it is the arrival of all those who had an exemplary life.

Photo Courtesy El Universal

On November 2, is the official Day of the Dead. It is when all the souls join with their families to celebrate and enjoy their welcoming. The celebration includes a feast including tamales, mole, candied pumpkin, atole, coffee, Day of the Dead bread, and much more. We need to start the planning mid-October and the planning of the menu no later than October 28th.

Opening the door to our beloved departed placing the altar at the entrance of the home

Opening the door to our beloved departed by placing an offering at the main entrance of the home.

Receiving the visit of those who have left us is a tradition that has a special mystique. It is about honoring death with different elements because each piece has a significant spiritual meaning.

The celebration needs to incorporate the folklore and religious aspects as well as all the syncretism expressions to allow the souls to arrive safe and sound at the Mictlán or our home.

Water and light to welcoming the departed

Water and light to welcoming the departed. Candles symbolize the faith and lit the way of the souls.

We can choose to make a two, three or seven levels welcoming. The one with two levels represents the sky and the Earth.

The one has three levels represents the sky, the Earth and the purgatory. The seven-level is the full representation of what happens to the deceased in its journey to reach heaven.

Important symbols such as the Monarch butterfly, the dog and the Sacred Heart

Important symbols such as the Monarch butterfly, the dog, and the Sacred Heart cannot be missed.

A cross made of salt, mezcal and our departed pets

A cross made of salt to purify the souls of the dead and ward off evil spirits. Plus mezcal for welcoming the adult souls.

Copal and flowers

Copal to purify the souls, and flowers to represent the fugacity of life.

Pictures, food, and flowers

The ofrenda includes food, candies, and all the things that the departed enjoyed while being alive.

The Martin Family reunited with La Virgen del Cobre from Cuba

This is our shopping list for setting up an altar offering at home:

  • Shop for Cempasúchil or marigold of the dead as well as the red cockscomb flowers. Both have different meanings and provide a colorful set-up.
  • The marigold of the dead evokes the sun and helps guide the souls with its unique aroma and fiery color that shows the way back home attracting our faithful departed to our home. And the red celosias or cockscomb flowers represent the blood of Christ.
  • You need an arch and a path with the marigold petals. Represents the door that welcomes the souls to the living world.
  • Shapes or actual figurines of the Monarch butterfly representing the souls that are in their way to visit the world of the living.
  • Another element is the copal incense representing the prehispanic ancestry of the Mexican culture. Serves to drive away evil spirits to allow the souls to enter the world of the living safely.
  • The image of a dog that will help the departed cross safely.
  • You will need several candles; each lit candle represents light, faith, and hope guiding the spirits to arrive and leave safely. Adding purple candles and purple colors signify bereavement.
  • Water and salt are other elements needed. The water is placed to gift a drink to the soul that has traveled for days.
  • It also represents the purity of the soul and life itself. A cross made of salt as a way of preservation and purification of the soul on its trip to the present world and back.
  • Sugar skulls in different shapes and sizes. These are a reminder not to fear death as in the end it could be sweet.
  • Papercuts using colorful options representing joy.
  • Pictures of the departed, preferably when they were young.
  • Add images with saints or an image of Virgin Guadalupe.
  • Bread, a variety of foods, candies, and fruits.

The list might be lengthy, but you will see everything comes alive and the set up will look beautiful to exceptionally welcoming your beloved.

Sugar Skulls because dead can be sweet too

Sugar Skulls because the dead can be sweet too. Plus toys for the children and younger souls.

Toys are an important element to include in the altar

Are you ready to plan for your family’s Day of the Dead celebration? 

Personalized sugar skulls are a must for the Day of the dead celebration

Celebrating the departed has nothing to do with Halloween. The celebration has a spiritual meaning rooted in prehispanic and evangelization beliefs. For us, Mexicans this is how we honor and remember those that are not anymore in the physical world but that live in our hearts.

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Mexican is such a fascinating culture. I love traditions and I never quite understood this one, so thanks for explaining it to us!

Cindy Ingalls

The alters for your loved ones is such a beautiful way to celebrate their lives. I didn’t realize that so much prep went into preparing for Day of The Dead, but it makes me understand how important the holiday for those who observe it.

Enriqueta E Lemoine

What a beautiful post. I love the way you pay tribute to your loved ones who have passed away.


I don’t celebrate dia de muertos but my husband does and he is teaching my daughter now, love to keep traditions in the family!

Genny Gall

Es un bonito homenaje para recordar a nuestrois seres queridos y mantenerlos en nuestros crazones

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