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How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar

A blending of pre-Columbian and Catholic traditions, Day of the Dead altars are tributes to deceased loved ones. You can construct an altar to celebrate the life of someone you lost.


  • Step 1: Cover the table Cover the table with cut tissue paper, or papel picado in Spanish, arrange the boxes on the table, also covering them with paper so your altar has 3 tiers. Significant colors for the paper are purple, white, and pink to symbolize pain, hope, and celebration, respectively.
  • TIP: You can also use a black cloth to cover the table and boxes.
  • Step 2: Add a photograph Place a photograph of the person to whom the altar is dedicated on the top tier of the altar, along with pictures of saints that are important to the family.
  • TIP: Place objects that represent things that the deceased liked in life, as well as personal belongings, on each tier of the altar.
  • Step 3: Add candles Adorn your altar with candles made of beeswax or paraffin, in different shapes and sizes, to light the way for the spirits. Place four on the top tier to represent the four cardinal points of the compass.
  • Step 4: Include skulls Include toy and candy skulls and skeletons in your decorations. Three skulls on the second tier represent the Holy Trinity.
  • Step 5: Burn incense Burn incense -- especially white copal -- to guide the dead to the altar.
  • Step 6: Include food Include food on your altar. Traditional Day of the Dead bread, or pan de muerto, is eaten by the dead when they come to visit their loved ones. For adults, put other traditional food on the altar, such as tamales and mole. For children, leave sweets and fruit.
  • Step 7: Scatter marigolds Scatter your altar with yellow marigolds to represent life's brevity. Remember and honor your passed loved ones and celebrate their lives every November.
  • FACT: Mexico City is built on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

You Will Need

  • Table
  • Tissue paper
  • 2 boxes
  • Photograph of the dead
  • Pictures of saints
  • Candles
  • Toy and candy skulls and skeletons
  • Incense
  • Food
  • Flowers
  • Black cloth (optional)
  • Personal objects and belongings (optional)

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