We explain what an altar of the dead is, how it originated, and the types that exist. Also, what are their characteristics and what do they represent.

What is an altar of the dead?

The altar of the dead is an offering that is made on the Day of the Dead in Mexico . In each home the altar is installed in honor of the dead of the family to pay tribute to them. In addition, the altars of the dead can also honor important characters. On the Day of the Dead it is believed that the dead of the family return for a day, so it is important to present an altar that honors them.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2 , although in some regions of Mexico it begins on October 31. This festivity comes from pre-Columbian times and was later combined with Christian festivities such as All Saints' Day.

Currently the holiday is beginning to merge with the American tradition of Halloween .

Although they have characteristics in common, the altars of the dead differ greatly depending on the Mexican region , some are only three levels and in a restricted space, others are spread over the ground , others include varieties of traditional foods.


Although the oldest origin of the altar of the dead can be found in the Aztec culture , the current form it takes has a mixed origin: on the one hand, pre-Hispanic beliefs about death and the return of the dead, and on the other hand Christian beliefs. that can be observed in the presence of the cross.

In pre-Columbian funerary rites , everyday objects of the deceased were presented at the burial to accompany them on their journey to the other world. These offerings are the antecedent of the elements that are presented in the current altar of the dead.

Types of altars

types of altars

In addition to the differences found in each region, the altars are classified according to the levels they have:

  • Two level altar. One level represents the sky and another the earth. In the upper level (the sky) the goods granted by the sky (such as rain or the sun ) are represented and in the lower level (the earth) the fruits.
  • Three-tier altar. The upper level represents the sky and the goods that come from it are included. In the intermediate level the fruits of the earth are presented. The lower level represents the underworld: the world of the dead, which should not be interpreted as hell since in pre-Hispanic cultures (which survive in this custom) there was no concept of punishment after death. In the altars most influenced by Catholic beliefs, the representation of heaven, purgatory and earth can be found.
  • Altar of seven levels. The seven-tier altar is the most conventional. Each level represents one of the steps that the soul must overcome to reach rest. In some cases the seven destinies of the soul are represented, according to Aztec belief. In the altars most influenced by the Christian faith, the levels represent the seven deadly sins.



The foods that are presented at the altar can be the favorite dishes of the dead person being honored or simply the typical dishes of the area.

There is a traditional food specific to this festivity: pan de muerto . It is a sweet bread that can be decorated with strips that represent bones or with sesame seeds that represent the tears of the dead.



Candles are present in almost all altars since fire is an element present in both pre-Columbian and Catholic rituals. They can be white or colored wax.

Both candles and campfires or torches are a way to guide and attract the spirits.


Water is often present on altars , mainly to quench the spirit's thirst . However, water can also be present as a symbol of purity.

They also offer "drinks" or favorite alcoholic beverages of the deceased such as tequila, mezcal or pulque.



Sweets traditionally made of sugar in the shape of a skull are characteristic , which can also be made of chocolate or amaranth.

On the Day of the Dead, skulls are not only present on altars but are also sold at street stalls to be tasted.

In addition to skulls, representations of death such as complete skeletons , dressed in festive clothing and adorned with flowers , are frequent on altars and other Day of the Dead decorations .


The crosses and other Christian elements are evidence of the fusion between the pre-Hispanic tradition and the new Catholic beliefs . The cross is usually on the highest level of the altar, especially those with two or three levels. It can also be made of flower petals.

Rosaries belonging to the deceased who is to be honored are usually included . On the other hand, if the cross is on the ground and is made of lime, it represents the cardinal points.



Flowers are a common form of offering to the dead in many different cultures . On the altar of the dead they are presented many times with different designs that make the altars attractive to the eye and to the smell.

Personal items

As was the case in Aztec burials, when an altar for the dead is prepared for a member of the family , personal objects such as combs or photographs are included . In the case of children, their toys are presented to brighten their visit.


Although it seems like a modern invention, papel picado has been used in altars for the dead since pre-Columbian times , with paper made from the bark of trees.

These colored papers are perforated in such a way that various designs are drawn , usually cartoons. They have colorful colors: mainly yellow, which represents purity and purple, which represents mourning.

The above content published at Collaborative Research Group is for informational and educational purposes only and has been developed by referring to reliable sources and recommendations from technology experts. We do not have any contact with official entities nor do we intend to replace the information that they emit.


MA student of the TransAtlantic Masters program at UNC-Chapel Hill. Political Science with a focus on European Studies. Expressed ideas are open to revision. He not only covers Technical articles but also has skills in the fields of SEO, graphics, web development and coding. .

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