How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar


With just a couple weeks left before Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), we wanted to give you some tips on how to set up your own celebration altar. Here we will show you how we set up this altar for Chef Marcela in memory of her mother.


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


We share a bit of the history of Día de Muertos and why we love celebrating here. With the altar being the most visibly recognized aspect of the Day of the Dead celebrations, we wanted to show you how to create a small version in celebration of those near to your heart who have passed.

Traditional altars range in size and scope with up to 7 tiers, representing the 7 levels the soul must traverse to get to its final resting place, all filled with flowers, food, drinks, water, pictures, and other special mementos. While in many regions of Mexico these altars begin taking form on or around October 28th, they are completed just in time for the celebration on November 2nd.


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


Supplies you'll need to make a Day of the Dead altar:

• Your base 

You can use a table as your base and add boxes, crates, or books to create multiple levels. 

• Colorful fabric or tablecloth 

These add color and can cover the table and the boxes/crates. 

• Papel picado // Paper Banners

Papel picado, representative of wind, are delicately cut tissue paper. String up your papel picado over your ofrenda or drape in front of your table. 

• Velas // Candles 

Candles, representative of fire, are put out to light the path for the spirits to return. A candle is put out for each person that has passed and an extra for anyone that you might have forgotten. 

• A Glass of Water

Water is put out to satiate the thirst of the visitors on their long journey. 

• Food

The favorite dishes of each of your deceased family members, in addition to traditional ‘pan de muerto’, seasonal fruits, chocolates, candies. Pan de muerto, representative of the earth, is a traditional sweet bread baked especially for Día de los Muertos decorated bones and skulls made of dough. 

• Drinks

Your ancestor’s favorite drink, tequila, mezcal, beer (if they didn’t drink, no need for the last few =) … but what celebration of life in Mexico doesn’t include MEZCAL?!)

• Incense

Traditionally copal, but any form of incense would work. Copal incense is burned because it is believed to attract spirits, and believed to ward off evil and cleanse the area of an altar.



• Pictures

Pictures of the family members and friends you’d like to celebrate and honor are placed on the altar.

• Mementos

Their favorite objects or mementos that remind you of them. Anything with special symbolism.

• Calaveras de Azucar // Sugar skulls

Sugar skulls are iconic mementos that represent both life and death, as they are placed on altars and given to the living. They’re used to poke fun at death, in celebration, traditionally having the deceased’s name on the forehead.

• Cempasúchil // Marigolds

Marigolds are used to guide the departed back home with their strong scent and bright color. Sometimes petals are used to form a path on the ground from the door to the altar. We got all of ours from Native Poppy! How gorgeous is this garland?!


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


Follow these steps to create your own Day of the Dead altar:

While there are traditional ways of placing items on the altar depending on the given days during the season, we’ll keep it simple if it's your first time. 


1 – Arrange the boxes, crates or books on your table to create levels 

2 – Place the colorful tablecloth over the table and boxes 

3 – Hang papel picado over your altar or drape on the edge of your table 

4 – Place your photos on the highest level. If you have several photos, you can place them on the other levels as well

5 – Add a candle next to each of your photos

6 – You can place any personal belongings of the departed next to their photos

7– You may choose to place your family member’s favorite drink next to their picture 

8 – Add in the sugar skulls, marigolds, extra candles, water, and food on the lower levels in pleasing arrangement

9 – Place the incense on the center of the lower level, making sure it has plenty of room to breath

10 – Think of your family members and friends as you light each of the candles


There is no wrong way to build an altar or celebrate a loved one. While traveling through Mexico you will find that different regions have different customs and beliefs tied to these very special days. These are guidelines to help you get started. The most important thing is to honor and remember your loved ones that have passed. To keep their memory alive by celebrating them and sharing their stories. The intention here is to feel the love for your family members as you remember them. 


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


Artelexia / Elexia de la Parra


Check out our NEW Dia de los Muertos Traditions & Customs Coloring Book to learn all about Day of the Dead!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this Day of the Dead how-to for setting up your own remembrance altar. Share and tag your pictures with us on Instagram @Artelexia @DayOfTheDeadFestivalNorthPark so we can celebrate along with you.

Have you set-up a Day of the Dead altar before? If no, are you excited to try for the first time? Share with us in the comments below.




All images © Artelexia. Images may not be used w/out prior written consent. Pin and share, but please credit and link back to — ¡Gracias!

1 comment

  • Tanya Carrillo

    Thank you so much for this post, for all your Instagram posts, and for having a store with so many beautiful and authentic supplies at a reasonable price. I’m half Mexican from a long line of Mexican-Americans who assimilated and lost many traditions over the years. I’ve never felt “Mexican enough” to build an altar. And I’ve always been too embarrassed to ask people I know who do – because those conversations tend to reinforce the idea that I’m certainly “not Mexican enough.” I appreciate your responses on cultural appropriation and respect for the tradition so much. You provide information and welcomed those of us who are curious to dive right into this rewarding practice with respect and love. I built my first ofrenda this year, my parents both cried when I sent them photos of it. And my niece is excited to see it and participate, it’s on honor to pass it this on to her. I really cannot thank you and what you do to make Mexican culture accessible to us all!

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