Altars 101: Create Your Own for Día de los Muertos

Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2 in Mexico and in other Latin cultures to honor the memories of ancestors and the continuity of life. Even if you don't typically celebrate the holiday, Day of the Dead altars manage to reflect the festive elements of Halloween, while adding a deeper, more spiritual meaning.

To get started creating your altar, you'll need a few small things: a candle, a photograph and a couple of offerings. Altars don't necessarily have to entail huge and elaborate setups. The idea is to create a vigil in honor of someone that has passed, with hopes that their spirit is still among the living. 

The 3,000-year tradition of honoring the dead, which carries basic customs from Catholic traditions, has recently transitioned from a mostly religious event in Mexico to quite a joyous festivity throughout the United States.

Rene Yañez, co-curator of this year’s Day of the Dead exhibit at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco, gave us some tips on how to create altars, so let’s get started:

Materials and their meanings:

  • A photograph(s): “An image of the person it’s dedicated to.”
  • Candles: “A candle represents light, faith and hope. The flame guides the spirits on their journey.  Sometimes four or more candles are placed together to make a cross, which represents the cardinal directions, so that the spirits can find their way.”
  • Water: “This represents a source of life. It quenches the thirst of the spirits.”
  • Flowers: “You can place flowers in vases or pull the petals out and scatter them over all the surfaces of the altar. If you use cempasuchil (marigolds), the scent will be even stronger if you pull out the petals. The bright colors of the marigolds and their fragrance are synonymous with Day of the Dead. Fresh flowers remind us of the impermanence of life.”