Building an Ofrenda
Updated: Feb 1
A Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Your Día De Los Muertos Altar
What is Día de los Muertos?
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is an ancient Mexican folkloric celebration honoring the life and death of our ancestors, family, friends and spirit guides alike. The origin of this holiday traces all the way back to the Aztec Civilization and continues to be practiced in present day Mexico, the U.S., and many other parts of the world. As legend has it, the Aztecs founded this festival as a way to honor the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead, who watches over those who have passed on to the other side. They believed that come midnight October 31, the veil between the living and the dead is lifted, allowing our ancestors and lost loved ones to walk the earth once again. On November 1, the spirits of all deceased children (angelitos) are allowed to reunite with their families for the next 24 hours, followed swiftly by the adults on November 2.
To welcome our friends and family on this celestial reunion, beautifully ornate altars called ofrendas are set-up in homes and public spaces. This provides a beacon for spirits to find their way home. Ofrendas are decorated with colorful skeletons (calacas), sugar skulls (calaveras), food, water, photographs, toys, personal mementos, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, or anything reminiscent of the loved one’s essence. These offerings ensure the wellbeing and refreshment of the spirits after their long journey from the underworld, and further serve as a symbol of honor and respect.
It is believed that happy spirits provide protection, good fortune, and wisdom to their families. Honoring our ancestors and relatives in this way allows for an intimate and healing space to connect with those who have passed on, to give thanks for their lives, and to carry on their legacy. Here at Dual Crossroads, we’ve provided a guide to building your very own ofrenda! We hope this template inspires those of you participating in this sacred holiday to get creative, get reflective, and, most of all, have fun!
Before We Begin
It’s important to note that the template we provide is just that - a template. We encourage each of you to take into account the personal taste of your loved one(s). This is a highly important element as these offerings will be for their enjoyment. Feel free to substitute any ingredient or material listed below for an item in alignment with their personality. Welcome the spirits home by surrounding them with all the things they loved most!
Altar Cloth - this provides a clean, decorative surface for which to place your beloved’s items upon. You may use blankets, scarves, shawls, quilts, or any kind of ornate cloth. Feel free to use materials that belonged to them, or make your own!
Candles - depending on the color, candles hold a spiritual significance of their very own. For this particular kind of ritual we recommend using either white (for healing, purification, and balance), black (for protection and banishing negativity), indigo (for spirituality, psychic awareness, and divination), or blue (for spiritual communication and connection with the angelic realm). Religious candles depicting saints, archangels, and other religious figures are also very commonly used for these festivities. You could even break out your loved one’s favorite scented candle as this might be a pleasant treat for them!
Incense - Día de los Muertos is famous for the use of Golden Copal incense. Copal is a natural resin derived from the trees of the Buresa family. This resin was traditionally burned as an offering to the god’s by the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. This tradition has survived hundreds upon thousands of generations and remains a significant trademark of Día de los Muertos.
Smudge - smudging is a sacred ritual defined by the ceremonious act of burning medicinal or magical herbs, plants, and incense. It is commonly used by indigenous cultures from around the world for the purpose of cleansing or preparing a space for ritual, as well as banishing negative forces/spirits, or to bless a space/individual. Participants of Día de los Muertos typically burn sacred white sage for this occasion being that the plant itself is native to North America and Mexico.
Personal Mementos - decorating the altar with a collection of your loved one’s favorite things are what makes each ofrenda so unique! Photographs, toys, and food are just a few examples of this. This is a time to celebrate the life they lived and to reminisce on the beautiful quirks and characteristics that made them who they are.
Food/Drink - imagine how thirsty one would be after making it all the way back to the land of the living. Families provide their loved one’s spirit with refreshments often consisting of a glass of water, their favorite beer or wine, and traditional Mexican cuisine such as Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead). Pan de Muerto is a sugary, Mexican sweet bread prepared specifically for this special occasion. It’s traditionally adorned with skulls, bones, marigolds, or a combination of all three. These yummy treats are placed on the ofrenda as an offering for the spirits and enjoyed by families throughout the celebration.
Marigolds - this golden flower is used for its scent and color to guide the dead back to the living. You will find bouquets and trails of marigold petals surrounding most altars for this reason. Further, their vibrant color and sweet aroma add a touch of magic to an already resplendent scene.
Papel Picado - these traditional paper banners are decorated with intricate cutout designs depicting the many symbols of Día de los Muertos. It is said that the banner flutters in the wind as the spirits cross over to notify families of their arrival! Papel picado comes in a variety of colors - each conveying their own symbolic meaning. Purple stands for death, yellow stands for life, and orange serves as the union between the two.
Setting the Altar
Typically, ofrendas consist of three tiers representing Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. If resources are limited, you may simply reserve a special space in your home for your ofrenda like a small table or shelf. You may begin by placing an altar cloth across the ofrenda to ensure a tidy, respectfully reserved space. The first tier is commonly used for food and drink, and the highest tiers are used for photographs. Personal mementos, candles, calaveras, calacas, marigolds, herbs, and incense are scattered throughout. This isn’t a strict layout, but simply a guide from which to gather inspiration. When it comes to set up and design, we encourage each of you to follow your intuition and inherent creativity.
After setting your ofrenda with the appropriate materials, you may begin practicing the ritual of your choice. This could look like lighting a daily candle, frequently replenishing your altar with fresh food and drink, or positioning yourself comfortably in front of the altar and holding space for prayer. Some may find joy in lighting incense at night, or setting a time each day to dedicate a few moments of silent meditation to your beloved. The possibilities are endless and should reflect what feels natural for yourself and your family. Practices such as these strengthen our intuition, encourage mindfulness, and can prove to be cathartic for the grieving process.
As the festivities come to a close, you might be wondering how to respectfully collect the offerings or dispose of food items. A great way to begin disassembling the ofrenda is to give thanks while you work! Praying, meditating, singing, and chanting are just a few examples of what this could look like. You may feel compelled to leave the ofrenda intact for a few more days following the 1st and 2nd, or save a final smudging session for midnight on the last day. For many of us, food is a resource we cannot afford to waste. When this is the case, feel free to enjoy any left over treats as you see fit. You may also burn food in a contained space, such as a fireplace, as a final offering--or bury it within the earth. Just remember to remove any plastic or non-biodegradable products first.
Día de los Muertos is just as much a celebration of life as it is a reflection of death. We hope that this guide inspires and expands your emotional toolkit for ways to process the transition from this life to what may lie beyond. Let’s allow ourselves to be grateful for those who came before us, and for the life we’ve been given in return. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you for sharing this holiday with us.
HAPPY DIA DE LOS MUERTOS FROM THE DUAL CROSSROADS FAMILY TO YOURS!