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How To Build A Día De Los Muertos Altar

The truck bed of a Chevrolet has been turned into a traditional Día de los Muertos altar.
A scene from last year's Día de los Muertos in East L.A.
(Mario Tama
Getty Images)
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Carbs don't count in the afterlife. On Nov. 1 and 2, many in Southern California, Mexico, and across Latin America celebrate Día de los Muertos, also known as the Day of the Dead. 

Loved ones who have died are remembered and honored through various celebrations. Families gather at graveyards with strolling musicians, faces are painted, sugar skulls are decorated and altars are built. These altars are part of a ritual that dates back more than 3,500 years, to a time long before the conquistadors arrived in the New World.

Modern-day versions of the altars are sometimes simple, sometimes elaborate — but they almost always include ofrendas, a collection of the deceased's favorite things, along with touches of humor.

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Ofrendas are often divided among three tiers: 

  • The top level features images of the lost loved one and/or photos of saints.
  • The second tier is filled with favorite food items. There's pan de muerto, pan dulce, candy, cereal, liquor and more.
  • The bottom tier is the most practical. This is where items like candles, towels and water are left so that the loved one can refresh during their visit. 

We asked artist Kathy Cano-Murillo, also known as Crafty Chica, to share her tips for building a Day of the Dead altar.

"The way you design your altar for Día de los Muertos is totally up to you; it can be serious or playful," she said. "However, remember you are making it in honor of a loved one, so think about what they liked, what they miss from this earth."

Every altar is different, but Cano-Murillo suggests including the following:

1. Copal Incense

Incense burn from a dark holder surrounded by marigolds.
Mexican Copal or Copalero is traditional.
(Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/Getty Images/

2. Marigold Flowers

A bowl full of vibrant marigolds.
Marigolds are another tradition.
(Sagar Gore/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Why: Because the scent helps lure loved ones home

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3. Something To Drink And Eat

Plastic skeletons dressed as bride and groom in an offering altar for mexican day of the dead with blue cut paper, bread and mezcal
Food and drink should be offered
(Gogadicta/Getty Images

"The spirits will be hungry when they get here after their long journey," Cano-Murillo said.

4. Pan De Muerto

A tray of pan de muerto is accompanied by two cups of coffee and fresh marigold flowers.
Food is an essential element.
(Francesca Casillas/Getty Images

5. Sugar Skulls

White sugar skulls are in the process of being decorated.
Sugar skulls are another staple.
(Maria_Castellanos/Getty Images/iStockphoto

"These represent the sweetness of life, you eat or lick them to consume the dead and accept it as part of the cycle of life," Cano-Murillo said. 

6. Color And Lights

Vibrant colors and candles are used throughout this altar
A traditional setup.
(agcuesta/Getty Images

"We are honoring the lives of those who passed away and we want it to be uplifting and joyous!" Cano-Murillo said.

What questions do you have about Southern California?