Altars to the dearly departed are going up everywhere, homes, shops, public buildings. We are in one of our favorite restaurants this morning, and the altar here is being built and the entire floor is covered with pine needles. As the story goes, the spirits are invited back to celebrate and honor the lives they lead, and families and friends celebrate at home and in the cemeteries with laughing, eating, singing, even Mariachi bands. Offerings are placed on elaborate altars.
Candles -- Lit candles welcome the spirits back to their altars.
Marigolds -- symbolize death and the strong fragrance helps lead the dead back to their altars. Petals may be sprinkled on the floor around the altar or along a path from the front door to guide the spirit inside.
Incense – often copal incense, the dried aromatic resin from a native Mexican tree, is said to guide the spirits back to their altars
Salt -- represents the continuance of life.
Photo of the deceased -- A framed photo of the dead person(s) is placed in a prime spot on the altar.
Pan de muerto -- "bread of the dead,” is a symbol of the departed.
Sugar skulls -- symbolize death and the afterlife. They are given as gifts to the living during Day of the Dead and also placed as offerings on the altar.
Fresh fruit and vegetables -- whatever is available in season.
Other foods – usually altars include the dead person's favorite foods
Glass of Water -- thirsty souls may appreciate a glass of water after their long journey from the Beyond.
Toiletries – Spirits will want to freshen up so the altar might include a hairbrush, mirror, soap, a small towel, even their favorite cologne.
Drinks -- the person's favorite drink is also laid out, possibly beer, tequila, whiskey, posh (the local moonshine here), a soda.
Favorite small possessions -- Mementos and other things the person enjoyed in life are laid out, and often new things are bought. Only the best for the dearly departed.
Images of saints -- or other people important to the dead person in life.
Papel Picado -- cut pieces of colored paper are draped around the altar's edge or hung from above.
Catrina -- symbolizes the Mexican willingness to laugh at death. Originally Catrina was an elegant or well-dressed woman, referring to rich people. De la Torre said, "Death brings this neutralizing force; everyone is equal in the end. Sometimes people have to be reminded."
Ceramics and woven baskets -- are traditionally included in Day of the Dead altars.
The food from the altar is not actually consumed by the dead, but it is said that they take in the essence and nutrients of the food. The living eat the food afterwards, but it now “has no flavor or nutritional value.”