Day of the Dead altars: Popular items you’ll find on them and how to make one of your own

A Catrina, a folk skeleton doll, stands over a field of cempasuchil flowers at a farm in Xochimilco, Mexico City, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022. Cempasuchil or the Mexican marigold flower is also known as the flower of the dead and is used in Day of the Dead celebrations. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte) (Marco Ugarte, Getty Images)

Day of the Dead is a tradition that honors our past loved ones.

Around this time of the month, from Oct. 20 until the end of the month, families begin decorating their homes with lots of marigolds, special trinkets of their loved ones, and other items.

I pay tribute to so many of my family members, including my great-grandmother who I had the privilege to grow up with until she passed away when I was 11 years old.

Some ofrendas are made in layers -- to simulate the steps souls need to take in order to reach the light, but others are made using a simple shoebox wrapped in colored wrapping paper.

No matter how you create it, You’ll want to have most -- if not all -- items on your ofrenda, listed below:

Papel picado

Papel picado decorates a Market Square in downtown San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Also known as perforated paper. This represents the WIND element. The holes in the paper serve as a guide for souls to travel through.

Sugar skulls

Usually sold at bakeries, sugar skulls represent a departed soul in your life. They normally have the departed person’s name on the skull.

Sugar Skulls (Getty Images)

Pan del muerto (Bread of the dead) -

Around this time, bakeries produce this special bread as part of the celebration. The strips on top indicate a skeleton, and the knob on top is the cranium.

Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead) (Getty Images)

Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies play a part during Day of the Dead. They represent the spirits of the departed.

Monarch Butterfly (Getty Images)

A toy dog (or a dog figure)

The dog figurine is not meant to represent the departed pets in your life. The dog represents a guide for your loved ones.

Dog statue (Getty Images)

Your loved ones’ favorite food or drink

Do you remember your loved ones’ favorite dish? This is a special time to recreate that special dish of theirs, and place it on the ofrenda to honor how much they’ve enjoyed it.

Photos (especially your most favorite)

A photo of your loved one is special. Place your framed photo on the ofrenda next to their favorite food or drink.

TAXCO, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30: Food offerings, pecked paper flags and photos of deceased ones are placed at the altar of the dead (Altar de Muertos), a religious site honoring the deceased, during the Day of the Dead celebrations on October 30, 2021 in Taxco de Alarcón, Mexico. Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a religious holiday combining the death veneration rituals of Pre-Hispanic cultures with the Catholic practice, is widely celebrated throughout all of Mexico. Based on the belief that the souls of the departed may come back to this world on that day, people gather to pray, eat, drink or play music, to remember friends or family members who have died and to support their souls on the spiritual journey. (Photo by Jan Sochor/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

Flowers (marigolds)

Also known as ‘Cempacuchil’ (Sempa-SOO-chill) -- marigolds are the iconic flower of the dead. These also help guide the spirits on their path.

Orange marigolds (Getty Images)

Glass of water and a plate of salt

Having these two items on the ofrenda helps purify and quench the thirst of the souls.


Have one of two (or 10, depending on the size of your ofrenda). These represent the light that guides the dead toward our world.

Candles and marigolds (Getty Images)

Does my ofrenda need to be big?

Every ofrenda is different and you don’t have to stack yours very high. I’ve seen ofrendas stacked as high as seven feet!

Because I have a lot of portraits of family members, I opted to frame them on a tri-fold board (like the ones used in science fairs). But others have opted for boxes to show the levels of the ofrenda.

Also, not all ofrendas may carry a toy dog or a monarch butterfly. These items are purely optional.

Many families add religious items like crosses and photo frames of religious figures such as La Virgen Guadalupe.

Last year's Day of the Dead ofrenda (Ana Gonzalez/KPRC 2)

What do you place on your ofrenda each year? Share a photo here of your remembrances on or drop a message in the comments.

About the Author:

A graduate of the University of Houston-Downtown, Ana moved to H-Town from sunny southern California in 2015. In 2020, she joined the KPRC 2 digital team as an intern. Ana is a self-proclaimed coffee connoisseur, a catmom of 3, and an aquarium enthusiast. In her spare time, she's an avid video gamer and loves to travel.