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Altar de muertos 101

By Memrise Team

Day of the Dead is almost here. Which means there’s still time to put up your altar de muertos! Never you mind all of those pictures you’ve seen of beautifully intricate altars, what’s important in this most awesome of Mexican celebrations, is to honour your deceased loved ones with a little ofrenda that comes from the heart. After all, this is the one day of the year when they get to come back, so you better have some tasty treats and a few other bits that will help them along their journey and make their stay comfortable.

Here are 10 of the basic elements that make up an altar de muertos, and why it’s important to include them:

  1. Flowers. Traditionally, the cempasuchil flower is used, the more, the better! It takes its name from Nahuatl and it means “flower of 9 petals”. Its distinctive scent and bright colours are synonymous with Day of the Dead in Mexico. They’re often used to build a pathway that would lead the souls to the altar.
  1. Salt. Having a little dish with salt in your altar will purify the room and help the soul of your loved ones to stay whole for another year.
  2. A glass of water. It also helps to purify the room but, more importantly, it quenches the thirsts of the souls who’ve come to visit after a long journey from Mictlán.
  3. Food. And if you’ve travelled that long journey from the land of the dead, you’d, of course, be hungry. So be sure to include some of the food that your deceased loved ones enjoyed the most while on the land of the living.
  4. Pan de Muerto. More specifically, “Bread of the Dead” is a sweet loaf decorated with makeshift dough bones, that is traditionally offered to the departed souls and enjoyed by the living. Get one for them and one for you.
  5. Papel picado. It’s colourful tissue paper with cut out shapes of skulls and skeletons in cheerful scenes. It’s meant to represent air, but it’s also a symbol of joy.
  6. Candles. Their light helps our deceased loved ones find their way back to us. You can use a few to fashion a cross, symbolizing the four cardinal points, so they can better find their way.
  7. Sugar skulls. The cheerfully decorated sugar skulls are a nod to prehispanic traditions of offering skulls to the gods. Nowadays though, friends gift them to each other in addition to using them in their altar.
  8. Copal. It’s a super aromatic tree resin, burnt like incense to purify the air and drive bad spirits away.
  9. Pictures. Don’t forget to include pictures of the loved ones that you’re dedicating the altar to. Yes, that may include your pets, too.

Bonus! Try to include a dog figurine. It will symbolize the izcuintle that helps our loved ones cross the river back into Mictlán, until next year.