A Guide to the Seven-Level Altar

Make a traditional altar for the Day of the Dead

To celebrate the Day of the Dead properly, build an altar to commemorate your loved ones who have passed away. According to the Aztec culture, a traditional altar’s seven levels represent the seven destinations that a soul must cross to be able to rest eternally. However, this altar has many elements of the Catholic religion, due to the syncretism that arose after the Spanish conquest.

  1. First, choose to whom you are going to dedicate your altar.
  2. Now build the structure of the altar. It can be made with cardboard boxes or with wooden planks. Place them in the form of a ladder on a firm base. Cover them with a white tablecloth and decorate with colored paper.
  3. On the first level (the highest) place a picture of the saint or virgin that you believe in.  This will protect the altar.
  4. The second level is for the souls of purgatory. Place a paschal candle and regular candles to give permission to the deceased to visit the altar. Leave a glass of water and a mirror. This helps the deceased remember that he is dead and should not want to stay on earth.
  5. On the third level, put a handful of salt for the children of purgatory. This serves to purify the soul of the deceased so it will not be corrupted during the journey to the altar.
  6. On the fourth level, put some pan de muerto (bread of the dead). It is consecrated as food to the loved one, along with other souls that may be wandering around.
  7. On the fifth level, place the favorite food and drink of the deceased. This is to remember the good times in life.
  8. A photo of the deceased to whom the altar is dedicated is placed on the sixth level.
  9. On the seventh level (near the ground), form a cross with tejocote and limes, so the deceased can atone for their sins.
  10. Other elements that you can distribute among the seven levels are flowers like cempasúchil (to guide souls through their smell), sugar skulls, copal, ocote, corn seeds, fruits, toys like xoloitzcuintle figures (to make the children of purgatory happy), personal or favorites objects of the deceased and a wooden stick (to keep away the bad spirits and the devil).  


Take into account that on October 31 you must begin the preparation of food for the offering and the placement of the objects for the altar. On November 1, the food and drink of the offering needs to be replaced with fresh food and drink, so everything will be ready for November 2!

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