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How to make an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos

An altar for Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his wife Mercedes Barcha is set up in the studio of their home in Mexico City on Oct. 27, 2021. Day of the Dead, or <em>Día de Los Muertos</em>, the annual Mexican tradition of reminiscing about departed loved ones with colorful altars, or ofrendas, is celebrated annually Nov. 1. Garcia Marquez died on April 17, 2014 and Mercedes died on Aug. 15, 2020.

Each year, Nov. 1 marks the beginning of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico.

The holiday is a day of remembrance for those who have died. Its origins can be traced to pre-colonial Mexico, when it was believed that the souls of dead loved ones returned to their families once a year so that their lives could be celebrated.

Today, families commemorate the day by creating ofrendas, the Spanish word for offerings that colloquially is used to mean altar for Día de los Muertos.

What goes on an ofrenda?

Ofrendas can be customized to your liking, but many of them have some key elements.

  • Photos of your friends and family 
  • Candles and incense 
  • Water
  • Cempasúchil, or marigolds 
  • Sweets
  • Your loved ones' favorite foods 
  • Decorations, such as skulls and tissue paper flowers

How to build the ofrenda

  1. The first thing you will need is a table — any kind will do. The table is then draped with a decorative tablecloth. It is customary in Mexican culture to use a serape, which has its own distinct striped pattern. Ofrendas may also have several layers – the top layer represents heaven while the base represents earth. To achieve this, you can stack boxes underneath the tablecloth. 
  2. Add marigolds. The bright color and strong scent of cempasúchil is believed to make it easier for deceased loved ones to find their way back to you. 
  3. The light from candles is also an element that helps spirits return.
  4. Add your loved ones' favorite foods to the altar as an offering.
  5. Decorate with things such as figurines and colorful skulls, which represent the cycle of life and death. 
  6. Put up pictures!
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