Day of the Dead Altar Building

This time five years ago, Day of the Dead found me bereaved, far from home, and methodically beheading flowers. It’s ok, I’d been asked to.

I was staying at a B&B in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, and as I was there researching Day of the Dead for my forthcoming book, I volunteered to help build their altar. I cut the heads off marigolds, leaving an inch or two of stem, then a guy called Luis weaved them onto a frame, while a Canadian woman hauled in more whenever we ran low. Once the structure was built and set up in the hotel breakfast room, people wandered in and out adding the touches that would transform it into an altar.

Before I get into how you can build a Day of the Dead altar at home, I should point out that there is no hard and fast method. Mexico is an enormous country with various cultures, over 60 indigenous languages and hundreds of dialects; so unsurprisingly, a Day of the Dead altar in a northern desert town will look different to one in the lush mountains of Oaxaca. In Morelos, where I lived for two years, sugar skulls were a common sight on altars, whereas in other areas it’s frowned upon.

I’ll be passing on the method favoured by the Purépecha community indigenous to Michoacán, but keep in mind it’s about honouring the dead, not just achieving a ‘look’. If you have access to a stalk of sugarcane and want to construct an arch woven with golden flowers, have at it – but just as you’re no less married if you say ‘I do’ in jeans and Crocs, you can have a Day of the Dead altar without all the bells and whistles (though if the person you’re honouring liked bells and blew a whistle, by all means chuck ‘em on there).

What you'll need

Day of the Dead Altar essential 1

Table (and a candle)

You’ll need a surface for your altar, ideally with more than one level. You could just place a box on the table so you can display pictures of your dead above the candles and offerings. Some altars have multiple levels starting at the floor like a little flight of stairs.

A candle will light the path home for the spirits.

Purepecha altar for Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead Altar essential 2

Pictures of the dead

Who are you honouring? Put their picture on the top level. You could just have one photo, several pictures of the same person, or even crowd it with everyone you’re welcoming for a visit – this could just be family and friends, but I’ve known people to include pictures of people they never knew but whose loss they feel keenly anyway, like David Bowie.

Offering for day of the dead

Day of the Dead Altar essential 3

Ofrendas

The ofrendas (offerings) are the nucleus of Day of the Dead – namely, food and drink. The idea is that the dead have come a long way, so arrive hungry and thirsty. In Mexico altars are usually adorned with fruit and pan de muerto (bread of the dead), an intensely sweet, sugar-encrusted roll; and a bottle of beer, or shot of tequila – but you can leave out anything the person liked to eat or drink.

And yes, it’s fine to eat the food after the festival is over, but where I lived people wrinkled their noses at the suggestion, since the belief is that the dead suck all the nutrients out of it.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 4

Affects

This is by no means essential, but some people like to leave out things that signify or belonged to the dead person, like a stack of cards or a piece of their jewellery.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 5

The four elements

In the Purépecha tradition, home altars have to include representations of fire, earth, air and water. The drinks you leave out represent water, and the candles provide fire – as do sticks of incense (and though it’s pricey here in the UK, if you can get copal incense, the aroma will transport you to Mexico instantly).

Fruit offering for day of the dead

Fruit represents earth, and the best way to represent air is to hang something off it so it can blow in the wind – a lot of altars in Pátzcuaro shoot two birds with one stone by hanging bananas off the edge of the altar.

Day of the Dead Altar essential 6

Flowers, preferably marigolds

Flowers represent the fragility of life, and I like to imagine they symbolise the dead blooming again, if only for this brief visit.

The flower of the season is the marigold. Its vibrant orange is everywhere during the season of the dead: we see it on pumpkins as Halloween muscles in, on the autumn leaves as they flutter to the ground. In Mexico, it’s the flor de muertos, the flower of the dead, and the scent (especially strong when you squeeze the petals) is said to help guide the dead to the living world. Known as cempazúchitl (also spelled cempasúchil), it combines the Nahuatl words for ‘twenty’ and ‘flower’; the word ‘twenty’ was used to represent ‘many’, so the likely translation is ‘flower with many petals’. Those many petals come in handy as they can be arranged to make a path to the altar, or a border, or just scattered for decoration and aroma.

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Day of the Dead parade with marigolds

Tips on finding marigolds

Despite being native to the Americas, they’re often sold under the name ‘African marigolds’. I haven’t always found it super easy to find fresh marigolds in the UK, as they’re often unavailable or sold out. But don’t despair, you could always buy artificial garlands and store them away the rest of the year like Christmas tinsel. You can also get real dried marigolds on Etsy – or my sneaky tactic is to scatter marigold-petal tea for the colour and fragrance.

Happy building, and Feliz Día de Muertos!