Quick Day of the Dead Instructions—And How Things Change

Last Monday a notice popped up in my university email: It’s time to build an altar for the Day of the Dead. (And do it in the correct, traditional manner!)

Several professors of Spanish have organized an altar-building event in the student center for a number of years now. But the event takes its own directions. In 2007, I photographed student-made altars to American war dead, to Victorian British writers, and even an altar to Vlad the Impaler.

In 2008, Wendy Griffin of California State University-Long Beach and I presented at the American Academy of Religion about Día de los muertos celebrations at our two universities. I was taken by the sneaky Paganizatioon of the event:

Since the instructions pushed a particular cosmology and an attitude towards the dead, I (Chas) wondered, having taught classes in American religion, if the altar-building could be construed as a classic church-state issue. After all, this was a state-supported university providing very explicit directions on how to perform a ritual—not that anyone followed them precisely! (Incense-burning in the student center probably violates some regulation.) At this point, I approached my colleague, the Mexican-born, Los Angeles-raised professor of Spanish who sponsors the event. “It sounds like tax-supported Paganism to me,” I said.

“Oh no,” she replied, “It’s cultural.” And she resumed laying marigolds on her altar to Frida Kahlo.

I am putting the instructions for the traditional altar below. But I think that I will stop by the Student Center with my camera to see what the American students have done with instructions from an Ecuadorian professor about how to celebrate a Catholic-Aztec Mexican holiday.

Traditions, they are always changing.


The most important thing to place on your Day of the Dead altar is a photograph of the person(s) to whom you are dedicating the altar.
The three tier altar is covered in papel picado – which is bright colored tissue paper with cut out designs. The paper can be either handmade or purchased.  Three important colors are purple (for pain) white (for hope) and pink (for the celebration).
Candles are also placed all over the altar.  Purple candles again are used to signify pain. On the top level of the altar, four candles need to be placed – signifying the four cardinal points. The light of the candle will illuminate the way for the dead upon their return.
Three candy skulls are placed on the second level.  These represent the Holy Trinity. On the center of the third level a large skull is placed – this represents the Giver of Life.
All bad spirits must be whisked away and leave a clear path for the dead soul by burning in a bracero, a small burner used to cook outside.  Or you can use a sahumerio to burn copal or incense.  A small cross of ash is made so that the ghost will expel all its guilt when it is stepped on.
The Day of the Dead bread, pan de muerto, should be accompanied by fruit and candy placed on the altar.  The pan de muerto is plain round sweet bread sprinkled with white sugar and a crisscrossed bone shape on top. Pan de muerto is available in Mexican food stores and bakeries in Pueblo. You can also add the person’s favorite food.
A towel, soap and small bowl are put on the altar so that the returning souls can wash their hands after their long trip. There is a pitcher of fresh water to quench their thirst and a bottle of liquor to remember the good times of their life.
To decorate and leave a fragrance on the altar, the traditional cempasuchil flower is placed around the other figures.  Cempasuchil comes from Nahuatl cempoalxochitl, that means the flower with four hundred lives.  The flower petals form a path for the spirits to bring them to their banquette.

*The following websites will assist you with ideas as you prepare your altars*

Altar decorations and materials are the property of those setting up the altar, any damage done to the altar during setup, the celebration, or at take down is the responsibility of the entrants and not the responsibility of the Dia De Los Muertos committee or CSU-Pueblo.

6 thoughts on “Quick Day of the Dead Instructions—And How Things Change

  1. I agree w/ Chas that governmental entities should not be engaged in religious practices. There’s, obviously, a thin line between “teaching” about such practices, particularly as part of teaching about a culture and “engaging” in such practices. But if state-run universities were engaged in creche-building as a form of Christian worship, I’d object. I also believe that student groups (Christian, Pagan, Spanish-Culture, whatever) should be free to engage in religious practices.

    Meanwhile, I’m just v glad that last-night’s “freak” snow storm didn’t ruin the marigolds that I’ve been carefully sheltering for my Ancestor Dinner centerpiece. Syncretic much? Yeah. I’m an American mongrel.

    Samhein blessings to those as wants ’em.

    1. Hecate, as I suspect you might realize, the humor to me in all this is that while the altar-building is clearly moving in the direction of Paganism, no one sees it as “real religion.” To me, it is quite real, but I just keep my mouth shut.

      I suppose that creche-building could be defended as merely “cultural” too, since that argument has been made in favor of public crosses, although it is definitely one that could backfire against the believers.

      1. Chas,

        Ah, that’s how our evil plot to take over everything progresses. No one will take us seriously until, bhwhahhaha, we are in compete control.

        I chuckle (with an evil bwhahah) when old religious practices are defended as ok for gov’t sponsorship due to their antiquity. If that’s the standard (of course, it REALLY isn’t) my religion will “win.”

        But “win,” if it means “get gov’t approval” is really equal to “will die.”

        Which is the real reason I want gov’t out of religion.

        I will now go off to practice my not-approved religion that does not prostelytize.

  2. Pitch, how can it be “cultural appropriation” when, originally, it was a Mexican-born professor teaching it? Or was she a traitor to la raza or something equally silly?

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