How To Build an Ofrenda

Author Amigos | October 10, 2022

Held on November 1st and 2nd, Dia de los Muertos is a holiday celebrating and remembering those who have passed away. During this time, it is believed that the souls of the departed return to see their living relatives.

In order to celebrate the chance to see their family members once more, altars, or ofrendas, are made where people offer gifts to the spirits of their loved ones. No two ofrendas are alike, and they are as large and elaborate or as simple and personal as the family that made it. If you are looking to build an ofrenda during Dia de los Muertos for your loved ones who have passed on, here is a guide to get you started.


The most common way to set up an ofrenda is with three levels, which represent heaven, earth, and the underworld. They can also be made with two levels, which represent the separation between the earth and the sky, or seven levels, which represent the seven levels a soul must travel in order to reach heaven.

The Four Elements

On an ofrenda, the four elements (fire, water, earth, and air) are used to represent the journey that spirits must make every time they come to the living world. Candles are linked to fire, a glass of water represents water, pan de muerto symbolizes earth, and papel picado is connected to air.


Photos of loved ones who have passed help draw the spirits to the ofrenda so they know where to go. Photos of late celebrities, beloved artists and writers, and family pets can also be placed on an ofrenda.


Candles symbolize hope and faith while also functioning as guiding light to the ofrenda. Some people use four candles, representing the four cardinal directions to further aid the spirits' ability to find the ofrenda.

Papel Picado

Intricately designed out of brightly colored tissue paper, papel picado is used to symbolize the union between life and death. 


The bright orange and yellow flowers of marigolds help attract the spirits to the ofrenda, along with their sweet, floral scent.


Water is used to quench the spirit's thirst after the long journey from the afterlife.


Sometimes placed on a small plate or in the shape of a cross, salt helps to purify spirits and prevent corruption.


Along with the departed's favorite dishes, pan de muerto, or the bread of the dead, is placed on an ofrenda to nourish the spirit with its smell.

Sugar Skulls (Calaveras)

Sugar skulls represent the individual who passed and often have the person's name written on its forehead.

Personal Items

Any additional items the departed may have considered important can be given as an offering, such as candy and toys for the spirits of children or tequila and cigarettes for adults who enjoyed them.