If you come to Mexico in October, you can see a lot of decorations for the celebration of the Day of the Dead: on the streets, in restaurants, shops and supermarkets. These decorations usually include flowers, candles, skulls, and altars.
Altar of the dead (altar de muertos) is a fundamental element in the traditional celebration of the Day of the Dead, whose aim is to honor the dead. Altars and offerings help people show affection for their deceased loved ones.
The representation of the altars of the dead has been changing over the centuries since the Catholic religion was introduced to pre-Hispanic Mexico. Today, you can notice that altars include various symbolic elements of the Catholic origin, such as rosaries, crucifixes and sacred icons.
The altars may differ depending on the region, as well as the worldview of different cultures and ethnicities.
The installation of the altars includes different levels that represent the worldview, the material and immaterial worlds, or the four elements. Each of these levels have different object symbolizing the culture, religion or a person to whom the altar is dedicated. For example, a two-leveled altar represents the heaven and the earth, while a three-leveled altar symbolizes the heaven, the earth and the underworld.
Some of the essential elements of the altar of the dead include:
- Water (reflects purity and helps to alleviate the thirst of the returning soul);
- Candles (whose flame is the light, the faith and the hope that guide the souls in the two worlds);
- Copal (the fragrance that purifies the environment and keeps the evil spirits away);
- Arc (made of the cempasúchil flowers and fruits, it represent the entrance to the underworld);
- Bread (represents fraternity);
- Photo of the deceased (to honor the person invited to the altar)
- Food (so the souls can try their favorite foods and drinks)
- Sugar skulls (allude the death, who is always present)
- Salt (essential purifying element)
- Confetti (to decorate the altar with colors and drawings).