Meaning of the Altar of the Dead

The altar of the dead is one of the fundamental elements of the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. It represents the vision that pre-Hispanic cultures had of death.

The altar of the dead consists of several floors where the syncretism of pre-Hispanic religions merges with the Catholic religion.

The basic levels of an altar of the dead are heaven and earth. It can have up to seven levels, where each step symbolizes the steps necessary to reach Mictlan, the place of eternal rest.

The altar is placed on a table, in a room inside the home, and this will be the place where the Day of the Dead offerings will be.

Altar of the Dead

According to belief, the gifts placed on the altar attract the spirits to facilitate the trip from Mictlan to the homes of their relatives to enjoy a night of partying.

See also Day of the Dead.

Dead Altar Levels

The levels of the altar of the dead represent the strata of existence typical of the syncretism of pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Aztec, Toltec, Mexica, among others.

Each level represents each of the strata in which pre-Hispanic traditions defined existence. The altars of the dead can have up to seven levels, with two being the minimum.

The first two levels represent heaven and earth, while the third level symbolizes the underworld, defined by the Catholic religion as purgatory.

The remaining links represent the steps needed to get to heaven and rest in peace.

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Elements of the altar of the dead

The items that are placed on the altar of the dead depend on the level they are on. Some of the objects that correspond to each floor of the altar of the dead are:

  • First floor: image of the saint to whom one is devoted.
  • Second floor: image of the souls.
  • Third floor: salt.
  • Fourth floor: image of the main character.
  • Fifth floor: favorite food of the guests of the world of the dead.
  • Sixth floor: photography and portraits of deceased beings.
  • Seventh floor: cross formed by seeds or fruits.

Also see 10 essential elements in an Altar for the Dead and their meaning.