the oldest and most trusted online guide to Mexico
  Home | About Us | Classifieds | Get Help | Mailing List | Message Board | Site Map   
 Content Guide
  City Guides
  Feature Stories
  Food & Drink
  General Info
  Real Estate
  What's New

  Contact Us

Your Oaxacan Day of the Dead Altar

Story and photos by Liz & Brian Parr (copyright 2003)

In Oaxaca, a Day of the Dead altar is not an exercise in minimalism.

An altar is all about abundance and earthly pleasure, at one time to appease a glowering Goddess of Death in an August festival, now to comfort and relieve lost loved ones and us too. An altar is a work of craft and care. It is a balance of dualities, a lot like Mexico itself, in that each flamboyant spray of flower, fruit, flame and bough finds its roots in the simplicity of deep cultural realities and traditions.

The Day of the Dead is an important family event, as such, the altar is usually set up in the biggest room in the house. A path of marigold petals can be strewn from the door to the altar to lead visiting souls to it.

Everybody in the family helps put the altar together, contributing delightful things theirs loved ones would have liked and might miss now.

Build your altar on a table, stacking up three levels to represent Heaven, Earth, and Purgatory. Cover each level of your altar with white cloth and decorate them with delicate, colorful, prettily-cut paper. Fluttery paper catches and represents the wind. On each side of the altar, form a big arch with sugar cane stalks. Sugar plays a profound and bitter-sweet socio-economic role in lives of post-Hispanic Mexican people. If you can't come upon sugar cane right away, bamboo also makes a graceful, towering, protective arch. The arch, according to an anonymous author of Impressions of mi Gente , an annual Oaxacan travel guide, represents the 'wish of those who inhabit this earth to join those who already occupy the next world.' Hang fruit, bread and flowers from the arch, and generally festoon yummy and lovely earthly pleasures from the arch and mound them up on the table, all the way down to the second level.

The fruit most abundant in this Day of the Dead harvest season are oranges , limes, apples, jicama, tejocotes, walnuts, peanuts and bunches of apricot-like nisperos. Include cigarettes and matches and mescal and beer, if you think they would delight your departed loved one. Cempasuchitl, which means Twenty Flowers, is the designated Flower of the Dead. They are fragrant and are associated with wisdom, beauty, truth, and 'the desire never to die'. Also include vases and wreathes of wine purple cocks' combs called 'Borla de Santa Teresa'. Other festive and seasonal flowers are agapanda and penumbras. Candles are important and symbolize, of course,"the Light of Truth". Bake little shortbread grinning skull cookies and mound them up. Pan de Muerto, or, bread of the dead, is an egg yolk bread obscurely said to be associated with walking 'on sacred paths' in more earthly terms, it's a delightfully rich pastry bread.

Each offering of food and drink is presented in pairs: two glasses of mescal, two mounds of apples, two towers of brown panela sugar, on and on, representing the opposition between Life and Death. Make sure to provide glasses of water to refresh all the thirsty souls after their long trip. Burn plenty of copal incense representing and binding together Heaven, Earth and Air. Copal has been used in animistic American ceremonies since long before the Spanish arrived, its smoke 'fills up the space between the earth and sky' joining the souls on earth with the souls in Heaven, all wandering around 'in search of God.'

In Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead schedule revs up on October 31 at noon, when the souls of children are welcomed. The altar is stocked with offerings on November 1. People dress up as devils, Death, widows, priests and frolic or sob through the streets according to character, acting out a funeral. They go from house to house dancing and praying for the departed and there is usually a little brass band to toot a rather merry dirge. On November 2 at dusk, the family visits the cemetery to leave flowers, tidy the graves, light candles and attend Mass. In Oaxaca, the most traditional is the noon Mass. Some people don't stop for days, dedicating Nov. 3 to give shelter to people who died in sudden accidents, the 4th to murder victims, the 5th to people who weren't baptized. Some people just want to think about their loved ones a little longer.

Editor's Note: Liz & Brian Parr live in Oaxaca. Liz is a graduate student working, with her husband, Brian, on a kitchen garden project in the green and mountainy Mixteca region of Oaxaca. You can e-mail them at

Do you have a unique story about Mexico, it's history, culture or your own travels that our readers might enjoy here on If so we'd be happy to read it and consider it for inclusion into our Feature Stories section. Just take a look at our writer's guidelines for more information and how to send us your story. Let's hear from you!

Back to the MexOnline Features Directory

 Home » Stories stories of mexico writers culture news history the oldest and most trusted online guide to Mexico