Day of the Dead Altars


An altar commemorates the life of a familiar or close family friend who has passed away. On November 1, strategically placed incense and candles (one for each remaining dead soul) light the way to the family altar. Families make a path of marigold petals from the sidewalk to the family altar so that the souls will recognize their way. People go to mass, and children are given toys with the appearance and image of death.


An altar must include the four elements (earth, wind, fire, and water).

Airpapel picado (decorated paper)

Fire: the light produced by the lit candles. 

Earth: usually represented by ashes (or incense). 

Water: kept in clear glass. The dead who visit the altar arrive tired and need it to satisfy their thirst. 


The three floors:

Each has a chronological meaning; they stand for the past, the present, and the future.


An altar must also contain the following:

  • Four big candles point toward each cardinal point (North, South, East, and West).
  • Flowers, especially cempasúchil, help deceased people find their way home with their bright yellow color.
  • Blue candles (river of death), purple candles (mourning), and red candles (passion)
  • A picture of the family member that has passed away.