Here are the elements of a Dia de Muertos ofrenda. This tradition hits deep in my heart this year. I lost my mom, and two very dear friends (two Phoenix Fridas!). We have less than a week to go, but I’ve been working on creating this altar all this week.
Emotions are strong, and I new I had to make this a slow and thoughtful process. I’ve already rearranged everything three times and will probably keep changing it as the days pass.
Here is a post I wrote last year, but it was more general. This post is very personal because it’s the first time I’ve shared my ofrenda here. Usually I keep it private, but I know my friends Luisa and Monique would want to me celebrate and acknowledge their lives with you.
Al right, let’s do this! Keep in mind that once you include these basic elements, have fun and get creative. Tell your own story through your ofrenda.
Meaning and purpose
Not only does the ofrenda honor your loved ones, the whole idea is you are inviting them for a visit. The spirits are allowed to visit for one day, and it’s our job to appease them and make them joyful for their return. That way when they return to the spirit world, they will feel fulfilled and happy!
This time is not about us mourning them, it’s about us hosting and welcoming them for a short period of time. If you haven’t already – go watch Coco!
You can choose two, three, or seven layers for your ofrenda. I happened to have an A-frame shelf unit that worked perfectly. The top represents the sky or spirit world, the middle represents earth – the land of the living and the bottom is for the underworld.
I’ve also learned your ofrenda should have representation of earth, fire, water, and air.
Photos and mementos
This is why I collect frames all year round – so I can match them with pictures for my Dia de Muertos ofrenda. You can decorate them or let the image shine on its own. I used matching frames for Mo and Luisa.
Doing my best not to be sad but think about all the fun adventures we had together.
Anyway…here’s a pic of my mom and dad when they were young. I still need to prop up Patrick’s relative pics too!
You’ll also want to place items next to their picture – things they loved. Foods they enjoyed, toys, music.
NOTE: It’s not necessary to have a picture, you can also use items that belonged to them. Think about it, this is a tradition that began long before cameras even existed. The use of photos came about in more modern times.
I’ve heard different versions about white candles – I read that four candles are needed to represent the four directions to serve as a compass for the spirits to find their way home. I’ve also heard you can use a cross.
Candles represent fire of the four elements.
Then I read you should have a candle for each soul. You can use/decorate prayer candles or just use smaller ones, like tea lights. NOTE: Never leave candles burning unattended! Light them on November 1 and 2nd, and stay close by!
RELATED: Whipped Clay Prayer Candles
If you want constant illumination, do what I do! I use battery-operated tea lights and a light strand. It adds mucho personality!
Salt, copal, a mat, and a glass of water
Copal is a tree resin that comes in different forms. You can use a fire-safe dish to place a burning piece of charcoal, then sprinkle the copal on top and let it burn. The aroma will help lure the souls home, as well as ward off any negative energy in your home.
The salt is to cleanse and protect the souls from any earthly desires or temptation.
A glass of water is set out for the spirits to quench their thirst, and it represents water ofthe four elements.
A mat is placed at the base of the ofrenda for the spirits to wipe their feet and to rest.
Copal or incense
Copal, a type pf resin, is burned to remove negative energy and the smoke represent wind of the four elements. It also has a very strong aroma, when coupled with the marigolds, creates a pathways for the souls to find their ofrenda.
Marigolds – Cempasúchitl
Marigolds are beautifully ruffled flores with a very strong scent.
If you are able – create a marigold arch at the top of your ofrenda, it signifies the gateway between the living and the spirit world.
You can read my post about them here: The Meaning of Marigolds for Dia de Los Muertos + Free Printable
Call your local florist to place an order if you want a fresh batch. You can also find them at the grocery store this time of year – but they sell so fast! However, you can order plastic ones online or even make your own!
Here is a quick tutorial I posted for large flowers, but you can cut the tissue paper for smaller ones.
Monarch butterflies are significant because it’s believed each butterfly is the soul of an ancestor. These magical winged creatures migrate back to Mexico around the same time that Dia de Muertos takes place.
Really? Papel picado and Day of the Dead? Yes! The way the wind blows the tissue represents how delicate life is. I used mini-strands across the front.
Sugar skulls, lots of them!
Of course, the actual sugar skulls are awesome, but I hadn’t made them yet, so I opted for these painted versions. Paint the name of a loved one at the top of each one if you want!
Related: Three Facts About Sugar Skulls
Pan de Muerto
Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet bread with the shapes of bones criss-crossed at the top and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. It’s a special offering for the dead to enjoy and you can. usually find it at the grocery store or bakery. The bread represents Earth of the four elements
A good Dia de Muertos ghost story!
I wrote a short story about a crafty chica, Rubina, who finds a rustic chest to decorate, only to discover it’s haunted!