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"Buen amor y buena muerte, no hay mejor suerte para ser recordado con amor."
"Good love and good death, no better luck then to be remembered with love."

- Author Unkown


Hand-made altar in a shoe box by Gloria

Hand-made Altar in the shoebox by Gloria

Mexican cajita of Day of the Dead altar
Altar in the box at

Altar in a Box - By Gloria

How to create an Altar


  • Start with a table, or even a shelf or countertop. Sometimes you can use plastic or sturdy carton boxes that are sturdy or pile up some books.  See, that was easy.

  • Build an arch if you like, to help visually center the altar.  Use wire or go to a garden supply place which is ideal. Be creative!

  • Marigolds, the traditional flower would look lovely, adorning your arch, wouldn’t they? Or try some other flowers that were the favorite of your beloved one(s).

  • Pile boxes on the table to create tiers to place your different items. 

  • Throw a tablecloth or fabric over the boxes and the table. 

  • Papel Picado or another type of trim can be placed around the edge of the table and each level. You can make your own out of tissue paper or create decorative drawings and place them on the walls of your altar.

  • Put a portrait of your honoree on the top tier of the altar. If you don't have one you can draw one or create something that represents that person you have in mind.

  • On the lower tiers: candles, flowers, fruit, sugar skulls, bread, water, smaller photos, knickknacks…whatever is important to you. 

  • If you have a group of people gathered for several hours, perhaps longer, they’re going to want to eat.  Preferably the same thing your “guest of honor” used to enjoy can be served.  So for the living, break out the tamales, burritos, mole, bread, fruits, vegetables, drinks, candy, and the deceased’s other favorites.  This will trigger memories, stories, and other happy thoughts. My father would love to go to the Dodger game, so I would put out a hot dog, peanuts and a cap!

  • Memories are particularly important for children.  The stories need to be passed along the generations, so the person lives in the hearts of his ancestors for centuries to come.  It is also a great learning tool to show children a connection to relatives no longer with them physically and to discuss death without fear.

  • But again, there is no wrong way to create an altar.  And with lifetimes to treasure, celebrate and share, there’s no reason not to.

 There are a few further common elements and ideas:

•Photos: A large, possibly formal photograph of the dearly departed is the centerpiece (“ofrenda”). Smaller candid snapshots may grace the lower levels.

•Music: In recent years, live or recorded music have been added to many altars.

•Food: The favorites of the deceased are generally featured, with tamales and mole being particularly popular.  Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet bread that is said to represent a soul.  Found at panaderías and an increasingly large number of grocery stores, it is often topped with icing to resemble a skull and crossbones.  Salt, symbolizing purification and the continuance of life, is for the dead to season the food you’ve prepared for your loved one.

•Clean-up: sometimes soap, towel, a hairbrush, a mirror, a razor, a bowl of water and other grooming items are left at the altar so the dead may freshen up.

•Knickknacks: Bric-a-brac, chotskies, trinkets, and truffles.  The deceased’s iconic belongings, favorite toys, and tools of the trade create a familiar setting for the return.  Religious symbols, their favorite CD or album can be included here. Perhaps a hat or favorite cap, jersey too.

•While there are many award-winning works of art altars, don’t let that intimidate you. Your altar should be unique!

Altar in the box at with the Virgin of Guadalupe

Remember, there is no wrong way and this is your personal memory--your personal gift--to your loved one.

Just make it authentically from your heart!

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