What is a Day of the Dead Ofrenda and How is It Prepared?

Dia de los Santos y Fieles Difuntos or Day of the Saints and the Faithful Departed is an ancient Mexican tradition that has mixed origins.

On the European-Hispanic side, it is known as "the month of the souls"; and on the Pre-Hispanic Nahua side, it is related to honoring agriculture and the harvest of produce such as corn and pumpkin.

Today in Mexico, we celebrate this tradition known as Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on November 1 and 2. 

The first day is reserved to celebrate deceased children and the second day is used to remember adults.

The special guests are our ancestors because we believe that death cannot reach us as long as there is someone who remembers us.

As good Mexicans, we love parties and food, and there is no better way to receive our family and friends than with a fiesta until dawn. 

What is an ofrenda and why is it prepared?

The ofrenda (offering) is what we offer to our deceased to let them know that they are still in our lives. 

The celebration of the dead should not be a painful one.

In fact, you should not receive family members, friends or ancestors with tears in your eyes, because it is a day of festejo (celebration).

When you receive a visitor in Mexico, you always receive them with open arms.

The same goes for the dead. You give them la bienvenida (a warm welcome) and in turn they toast to our reunion with a divine feast.

Whoever comes, whether he is from Mexico or a foreigner, is invited.

And when they come, we will offer them all of the abundant blessings that were harvested throughout the year.

The ofrenda is prepared and displayed as an expression of feelings of gratitude, love and reverence.

Thus the offering is given as an act of sacred enjoyment to our ancestors, who revisit their old homes and enjoy the fruits that they are denied in death.

Offerings can vary depending on geographical locations and/or economic situations, but there are basic elements that should always be included in an altar.

how to design a beautiful altar ...

The Different Types of Altars

Traditionally, there are three styles of altars. They can be small two-level ones that are often used in the home, or they can be monumental ones that are often dedicated to famous people.

Two-tiered altar

The two levels of this altar are identified as the table and the floor. This is the most traditional altar that is typically placed in private homes. According to popular tradition, this two-level style of altar represents Heaven and Earth.

This is why people typically places image of the deceased and other symbols of faith on the table (which represents Heaven). Sometimes saint or virgins and elements of water and fire are also placed.

Three-tiered altar

This altar is composed of three levels. According to Aztec tradition, these levels represent Heaven, Earth and the Underworld.


An arch is displayed as a symbol of Heaven and to welcome the faithful departed.


The table is divided into four cardinal points––the four directions of the universe where the dead go according to the way they died.

People who die from lightning, rain, floods, drowning, go to the East. People who die fighting for life or in childbirth, go to the West. Ordinary people go to the North. The souls of warriors and babies, go to the South.

Each division must include elements that correspond to that group.

East Side: On the upper left (East) side there are elements that pertain to water, spring and the color yellow, like a glass of water.

North Side: On the upper right (North) side are elements that are related to air, winter and blue, copal incense can also be used.

South Side: On the lower left (South) side, elements related to Earth such as summer and the color green are used. Clay pots with fruit such as medlars, hawthorn berries, or mandarins are typically placed here.

West Side: And finally, on the lower right (West) side, elements related to fire, autumn and the color red are placed here. Traditionally, this is where we place candles. 

The Underworld

Typically, a mat and/or a cross made with sand and adorned with flowers and candles is placed here.

7-Tiered Altar

It is more common to see this style of altar around Mexican cities. A 7-tiered-altar is traditionally dedicated to several people, including famous people.

Although it is more common to see an altar of this magnitude in a public setting, sometimes they can also be found in private homes, but they are more expensive to create.

Tier 1

A photo of a saint or a Virgin of your choice is placed here.

Tier 2

This section is reserved for the souls in purgatory and candles and incense are added here.

Tier 3

Salt is added for the children of purgatory.

Tier 4

Bread called "pan de muerto" or bread of the dead is added here. This bread is typically decorated with sesame in Oaxaca.

Tier 5

The favorite foods and fruit of the deceased are placed here.

Tier 6

Photos of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated are placed here.

Tier 7

A rosary cross made of tejocote (Mexican hawthorn fruit) or limes is placed here.

The Elements of an Altar and their Meaning


Every altar must include and start off by placing a white tablecloth, a symbol of purity and joy. 


An element of purification, which helps the body of the dead not to be corrupted by its journey.


Symbolizes the entrance to life after death and is placed on the upper level. It is typically made with palm leaves, common reed grass, or straw on each side and is tied together and decorated with cempasúchiles (marigolds) and borla or cresta de gallo (cock’s crest) flowers draped in an arc fashion.

Papel Picado

The wind symbolizes one of the elements of nature that every offering must contain. Its coloring gives it a festive atmosphere and the yellow and purple colors are used to signify purity and mourning.

Candles or tapers

The representation of fire which represents light to guide the spirits on their journey.


Water is placed to quench the thirst of the spirit. Different objects are also placed to represent a full glass of water such as beer, mezcal, and tequila which the deceased will use to quench their thirst along the way.

Dirt or ash

This symbolism derives from Catholic teachings and is used to represent our human condition. "You are dust and unto dust you shall return." Typically, a sand cross is placed to represent this philosophy.


Flowers are an especially important symbol during this time. You will find the Mexican markets filled with marigolds and cock’s crest.

Cempasúchiles (marigolds) help your relatives and loved ones find their way back to you. The vibrant color represents the sun, which in Aztec mythology helps guide the spirits to the underworld and their strong aroma is believed to attract the spirits who are returning to visit their families during this season.

Sugar Skulls

Have two different representations. They pay tribute to pre-Columbian times and symbolize the human skulls of the altars called tzompantli or skull racks, where the heads of sacrificed captives were offered to the Gods.

Today, there are made of sugar, chocolate and amaranth and represent the sweetness of life and the departed soul.

The names written on the forehead of the sugar skulls can symbolize
the name of the deceased or the name of a friend or loved one who is meaningful to you.

When you make a sugar skull for someone who is deceased, you place the skull on your altar in remembrance of their memory.

When you gift someone a sugar skull with their name on it, you are reserving a place for them in the underworld and telling them that you love them.

The small skulls traditionally represent children while the big skulls represent adults and elders.

Sugar skulls are a wonderful reminder that just because our loved ones are no longer with us, it doesn’t mean their memories are gone. We keep them alive in our hearts and stories.

Pan de Muerto {Bread of the Dead}

One of the most common symbols representing Day of the Dead celebrations. This bread is baked in remembrance of the human sacrifices made by pre-Hispanic cultures.

Tourists, who visit Mexico, will only find it during this special season. It is traditionally made with wheat flour, egg, sugar, and anise. Lastly, it is topped off with dough from the same bread formed in the shape of bones and dusted with sugar.

In Oaxaca, yolk bread is used, which is made with egg yolks, flour and sugar. Once baked, sesame seeds are added on top and a face (representing the dead) is made from hardened wheat flour and painted by hand.

Although it tends to vary from region to region, it undoubtedly occupies an important place in the offering.

Personal items

This refers to a necklace, bracelet, hat, wallet or any accessory that the deceased used in life.


The altar is accompanied by different types of images. One of them is a photo or photos of the deceased. While others, are usually religious images such as photos of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or other figures, which vary according to the beliefs of each family.


A dog figure is added to guide the souls across the river that separates them from the land of the dead.

In Mexico, it is common to see the Xoloitzcuintle, also known as Xolos or the Mexican hairless dog.

In pre-Columbian civilizations, Xolos were recognized as spirit guides. The Aztecs and the Maya specifically believed they were created by Xolotl, the god of lightning and death. Their purpose was to guard humanity in life and then guide the dead to the underworld.

Rug or Mat

A rug or mat is placed on altars as a place for the souls to rest.


Food is also a very important element that is added to an offering. Typically, people add the favorite foods of the deceased, including bread of the dead, sweets and some fruits.

In Mexico, a majority of the altars typically include mole negro (black mole sauce) with a piece of chicken and sesame seeds on top because it is considered a party dish.

Day of the Dead is About Enjoying Life

Lastly, it is important to note that the day of the dead is not a day of mourning. It is a day to celebrate life.

While may cultures view death as morbid, Mexico’s tradition of Día de los Muertos focuses on celebrating the lives of the deceased by sharing food and drink, and creating a beautiful altar in their memory.

The tradition recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience just as much birth, childhood and growing old.

This is why the most popular symbol of Day of the Dead are the calacas (skulls). They serve as a reminder that dead is nothing to be afraid of.

The skulls be found everywhere during this time of year—in decoration, candy, parade masks, figurines and more.

Contrary to what some might expect, the calacas (skeletons) are always depicted having a great time—laughing, dancing, and sometimes dressed in fancy clothes.

“La muerte es democrática, ya que a fin de cuentas, güera, morena, rica o pobre, toda la gente acaba siendo calavera.”

Translation: “Death is democratic, since in the end, blonde or brown, rich or poor, all people end up being skulls.” –– José Guadalupe Posada the creator of the satirical portrait of La Calavera Garbancera.

UNESCO Recognizes Day of the Dead as a Masterpiece

On November 7, 2003, UNESCO proclaimed Mexico’s indigenous festival dedicated to the dead as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

Watch How Romantica Calaveras are Made

Luisa Navarro contributed to this report.

Follow Arturo Canseco on Instagram


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