Traditional Altar in Oaxaca, Lupita Honoring Her Father Photograph by Juliane Backmann

What better way to honor and remember loved ones that have passed than to build them an altar filled with your favorite memories of them?  The centuries old-tradition of Day of the Dead altars has come to the United States, and it is a great way to show gratitude, celebrate memories and highlight the best and the brightest of their time on earth.
My Grandmother's Spirit Lives In Me, Created by Ginette Rondeau
Altars serve to guide returning spirits on their journeys from there to here.  Many include both personalized and traditional elements—several dating back to the pre-invasion Aztec era.

In Mexico, many families spend weeks and small fortunes planning and building Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) altars; many even hire professional artists to build altars at gravesides.  But most altars are much, much more modest, and are built in a family’s home.  

There is no wrong way to build at’s your own personal expression and memory. But traditionally, altars contain the four elements of nature: earth, wind, water and fire.

From the Earth, yellow marigolds are almost always present.  Flowers have a brief life, symbolizing the brevity in which the living occupies the earth.  Marigolds, known as “flowers of the dead,” grow and wilt quickly, reflecting the fleeting nature of life. Their aroma is said to help lure a spirit back, and the scent is even stronger if the petals are pulled out, so petal paths are often created to guide the souls home.  The bright yellow of the marigolds and their fragrance are synonymous with Day of the Dead.   Food from the Earth is also important…more on that later.

Wind is shown in the flapping papel picado and the flickering candles.  Traditionally there are four of the candles at the top of the altar, either representing a cross and/or the cardinal directions which are said to provide a lighted path to this world.   The papel picado cut papers add a colorful trim. Black represents death, pink is for celebration, purple signifies mourning, white symbolizes hope, and yellow is for the sun.

Water is the source of life, said to quench the thirst of the dead when they return from a long journey.  Often fruit punch, hot chocolate, cerveza (beer), tequilla or another favorite of the deceased are presented to refresh the spirits of a spirit after his journey.

Fire blazes in the candles and incense. The Aztecs burned copal incense as an offering to the gods, and it is used today for Roman Catholic funeral masses.  Sage and other incenses are also frequently burned to clear the space of negative energy and help the dead find their way.

A few further common elements:

Altar by Tony De Carlo•Photos:
A large, possibly formal photograph of the dearly departed is the centerpiece (“ofrenda”). Smaller candid snapshots may grace the lower levels.
•Music: In recent years, live or recorded music have been added to many altars.
•Food: The favorites of the deceased are generally featured, with tamales and mole being particularly popular.  Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet bread that is said to represent a soul.  Found at panaderías and an increasingly large number of grocery stores, it is often topped with icing to resemble a skull and crossbones.  Salt, symbolizing purification and the continuance of life, is for the dead to season the food you’ve prepared for your loved one.
•Clean-up: sometimes soap, towel, a hairbrush, a mirror, a razor, a bowl of water and other grooming items are left at the altar so the dead may freshen up.
•Knickknacks: Bric-a-brac, chotskies, trinkets and truffles.  The deceased’s iconic belongings, favorite toys and tools of the trade create a familiar setting for the return.  Religious symbols, their favorite CD or album can be included here.
•While there are many award-winning works of art altars, don’t let that intimidate you. 

 Remember, there is no wrong way and this is your personal memory--your personal gift--to your loved one. But here’s a few basic construction tips: How To Create An Altar


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