The Seven Levels of a Mexican “Day of the Dead” Altar

Frida Kahlo Day of the Dead mini altar
Frida Kahlo Day of the Dead mini altar
Frida Kahlo “Day of the Dead” mini altar. Museo Frida Kahlo, Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Katerina Papathanasiou/The Vale Magazine

In most Western cultures, death is considered a sad occasion and discussions on the topic are often avoided. However, Mexicans have a different view. Once a year, from October 31 to November 2, people throughout Mexico honor the memory of family members and friends who have died, during the “Day of the Dead” (Dia de Los Muertos) celebration. The multiday holiday is often more uplifting than sad. One of the central pieces of this ritual is the altar (or ofrenda), which can range from two to three to seven steps tall.

Mexican Day of the Dead altar in watercolor.
Mexican “Day of the Dead” altar in watercolor by Erika Lancaster.

The “Dia de Los Muertosaltars, created using tables, crates or shelves and found at grave sites or in homes, are particularly intricate. No matter how large the altars are, they must include representations of the elements of air, water, fire, and earth. An altar with two steps represents the earth and sky. With three steps, the altar depicts purgatory, earth, and heaven, or the Holy Trinity. The true masterpieces are the altars with seven steps.

Typically, a seven-step altar includes the following levels, from top to bottom:

1. Picture of a virgin or saint
2. Candles and lights, which represent guides to help souls escape from purgatory
3. Toys and salt figurines, particularly for the children
4. Pan de Muerto (the bread of the dead) and sugar skulls
5. Favorite food and drinks of the deceased (ex: mezcal or tequila)
6. Photos of the deceased
7. Marigold flowers, cut paper and crosses made from seeds or salt

Day of the Dead altar in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Day of the Dead” altar in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo: CPTM

The “Day of the Dead” has roots in ancient Mayan culture, but it has evolved over the years with Catholicism and colonialization. In general, death was viewed as the start of a journey to the kingdom of the dead before reaching heaven. Along the way, the departed would have to offer gifts in order to complete their journey. Over the years, Catholic crosses and religious symbols were incorporated. Regardless of religious beliefs, however, the altar continues to be a way to honor and celebrate the life of loved ones who have departed this earth.