How to build a Día de los Muertos altar (photos)

Laura Esqueda

Laura Esqueda and her brother, San Fernando artist Rick Ortega, created this altar for her son, Luis Andres.

Isabel Medina

Isabel Medina

(Urban Sea Star/ Flickr)

An elaborate Day of the Dead altar.

David Cabrera/Flickr

Copal incense, a sugar skull and pan de muerto make up this altar.

Laura Monteros

Laura Monteros makes alligator-shaped pan de muerto every year for her children.

Rosanne Giza

Rosanne Giza taught students at her son's school how to make sugar skulls.

Mary Drummond

"We have been making an altar for about 15 years now. It is such a positive way to remember all the beings who have touched our lives," said KPCC news source Mary Drummond.

Christian Estrada

"My grandmother used to decoratively sew tablecloths and drapes; those are her decorative tablecloths and drape that she sewed. I have two velas (candles), one of the Virgin Mary and the other of Jesus Christ;, my grandmother was a devout Mexican-Catholic. The framed photo is of my older sister and my grandmother, and the photo below of it is of me as a child with my grandmother. I have put our some pan dulce and a Mexican Coca-Cola for her soul to eat. I also laid out some Japanese peanuts, which she loved. I have decorated the altaer with marigold flowers, which are the official ceremonial flowers to use for Día de los Muertos. I have also decorated the altar with skulls as reference to death."—Cristian Estrada

Kathy Cano-Murillo

A pet shrine Kathy Cano-Murillo made.


Carbs don't count in the afterlife. On Nov. 1 and 2, many in Southern California, Mexico and across Latin America celebrate Día de los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead. 

Loved ones who have died are remembered and honored through various celebrations. Families gather at graveyards with strolling musicians, faces are painted, sugar skulls are decorated and altars are built. These altars are part of a ritual that dates back more than 3,500 years, to a time long before the conquistadors arrived in the New World.

Modern-day versions of the altars are sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate — but they almost always include ofrendas, a collection of the deceased's favorite things, along with touches of humor. Ofrendas are often divided among three tiers: 

  • The top level features images of the lost loved one and/or photos of saints.
  • The second tier is filled with favorite food items. There's pan de muerto, pan dulce, candy, cereal, liquor and more.
  • The bottom tier is the most practical. This is where items like candles, towels and water are left so that the loved one can refresh during his or her  visit. 

We asked artist Kathy Cano-Murillo, also known as Crafty Chica, to share her tips for building a Day of the Dead altar. (She recently launched a line of Day of the Dead craft items at Michaels.)

"The way you design your altar for Día de los Muertos is totally up to you; it can be serious or playful," she said. "However, remember you are making it in honor of a loved one, so think about what they liked, what they miss from this earth."

Every altar is different, but Cano-Murillo suggests including the following:

1. Copal incense

(Photo: vintagedept/Flickr)

2. Marigold flowers because the scent helps lure loved ones home

(Photo: Kevin Timothy/Flickr)

3. Something to drink and eat: "The spirits will be hungry when they get here after their long journey," Cano-Murillo said.

(Photo: Ute/Flickr)

4. Pan de muerto

(Photo: zerethv/Flickr)

5. Sugar skulls: "These represent the sweetness of life, you eat or lick them to consume the dead and accept it as part of the cycle of life," Cano-Murillo said. 

(Photo: Alex Barth/Flickr)

6. Color and lights: "We are honoring the lives of those who passed away and we want it to be uplifting an joyous!" Cano-Murillo said.

(Urban Sea Star/ Flickr)

View the altars of Cano-Murillo and KPCC new sources in the slideshow above. Do you have a photo to share? What items do you place on your Día de los Muertos altars? Send pics and tips via this query or to aalvarado@scpr.org, share on Facebook or Twitter @KPCC. 

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