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DIY Day of the Dead Altar

The Day of the Dead was named Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2003.

We've talked about the best places to spend the Day of the Dead (spoiler: they're all in Mexico.) Now, we'd like to share how you can make your own altar and join in the celebration.

The altar might be the most iconic motif from the Day of the Dead. But, what goes on an altar? We'll explain everything, what they represent and/or their purpose:

Large paper mache skeleton sitting in a field of marigolds.


It's tradition to make thick trails with the flower petals from the main road to the altar at your home. The flowers guide the spirits to the altars. Now a day, you might not see the trails, but the flowers are a huge staple for this holiday.

Stack of sugar skulls decorated with fun colors.

Sugar Skulls

One of our sweetest traditions. The sugar skulls serve three purposes: 1- to remind us of our past loved ones, 2- to remind us that life isn't forever and that one day we will be on the altar, and 3- they're delicious! (Buy a couple of extras, so you don't eat the ones from the altar.)

Two lit candles, each with the Virgin of Guadalupe.


Not only do they add a magical feel, illuminating the shrines with their flickering lights, but the candles also represent the flame that allows our loved ones to cross over and reconnect with us.

Colorful papel picado hung tightly.

Papel Picado

Which translates to "chopped paper," is the colorful bunting with designs cut into them. Not only does it give the altar a pop of color, but they also represent the air and should be present at every shrine.


The whole point is to remember and honor the people we've lost; having their picture helps make this easier.

Black altar made of multiple layers covered with pictures of loved ones, bowls of food, flowers, lit candles, and papel picado decorating each level of the altar.


You have candles and flowers to guide the spirits, but you have to give them something they really want. Putting out their favorite food, drink, toys, or anything they always had with them in life, will draw them to your altar.

Round bread with a cross over it, covered in sugar.

Pan de Muertos

You've put out the food, but you might not want to leave it out for a long time; having some bread on the altar is a good way to make sure the spirits find nourishment when they reach our plane. It's been a long trip; they're surely tired and need it!

Other things from the Day of the Dead that don't go on the altar:

Woman with dark hai, dressed in traditional clothes, with her face painted like a skull, with orange and green details.

Face Painting

Like the sugar skulls, they're a reminder of our lost loved ones and that we're all headed to the same place.


Meaning "little skull" these are short poems with humor, irony or a Mexican twist. They always talk about dead, but in a way meant to remember the deceased with a smile on your face.

What's your favorite part of the Day of the Dead? If you make an altar, share it with us! Snap a pic and post it in the comments, we'd love to see them.


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