An ofrenda can take many forms. It can be simple, or it can be an elaborate three-tier altar where items such as food, drink, photos, toiletries, candles, incense and other personal possessions are arranged. The altar is often decorated with papel picado, crosses, marigolds, and sugar skulls.
Every item placed on an ofrenda has a meaning or purpose. Sometimes there are multiple meanings. While this is not an exhaustive list and can vary from region to region in Mexico, here are some of the elements you will find on the altar and what each means:
- Many altars have three levels. The three tiers symbolize the Aztec belief in three deaths. The first being the physical death of the body and the second being when the body is laid to rest. The final death takes place when the deceased is forgotten.
- Copal (incense) and marigolds are also placed on an altar. Their scent helps guide the souls on the journey home.
- The deceased’s favorite foods and drinks nourish and quench their thirst after the long journey.
- Sugar skulls are a common item associated with Day of the Dead. They represent death and the sweetness of life.
- The monarch butterfly’s return to Mexico for wintering coincides with Day of the Dead and it can be found on many of the decorative items on an altar.