Making a Oaxaca Day of the Dead Altar: What You Need

Day of the Dead altars vary in size, location (private vs. public), and incorporated elements.  Our [Duke University] altar is created in the traditional Oaxacan family home style, led by our invited guests Eric Chavez Santiago and Janet Chavez Santiago from Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico who dedicate their work to their deceased grandfather (main altar photo, José Chávez Ruíz).

Eric and Janet explained that Day of the Dead altars are always constructed with at least three levels representing birth, life and death, and are symbolic of life’s continuum.

Some elements are nearly always present on the altar and carry particular significance, including:

  • Flowers as symbols of the sun; their fragrance also pleases the visiting ancestors and helps them find their way “home;” the marigold is used in abundance, alongside other local flowers.
  • Food: the ancestors’ favorite foods and beverage, often taking several days to prepare, are offered. Sometimes alcohol and cigarettes are included.  Mole (rich spiced stew made with meat, vegetables, chiles, chocolate, and spices), tamales, and chocolate are offered alongside pan de muerto (bread of the dead), fruits, and nuts.
  • Photographs of deceased loved ones, in black and white.
  • Christian cross and image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (Patron Saint of Mexico).
  • Salt as a purifier that preserves the body and a symbol of wisdom.
  • Water to quench the thirst of the ancestors after the long journey back; also represents purity and life.
  • Papel picado (paper cutouts) may take the image of anything from skeleton musicians to saints to dogs.
  • Copal incense: transmits praises and prayers in offering and may help the deceased find their way.
  • A petate, woven mat, rug or seat where the deceased can stop and rest while enjoying the offerings.  Sometimes a small pallet for resting is also laid out, with favorite clothing or other possessions draped alongside.
  • Sugar skulls and images of skeletons
  • Candles like stars and symbols of eternal love, hope and faith; they signify triumph for having passed into immortality and light the path for the ancestors to find their way “home.”
  • Toys and candy for children.
Note: We were able to find all altar materials locally except for the copal incense! See what you can do to improvise this.


Research and text provided by Jenny Snead Williams, executive director, Duke University Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South.  The exhibition Days of the Dead: From Mexican Roots to Present Day Practiceis open through November 5, 2012.  Some of the 27 prints (appx 20” x 24” high-quality canvas) from the exhibition are offered for sale, at a minimum suggested donation of $50. If you are interested, please contact Jenny.

Join us on a future photography workshop in Oaxaca!

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