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Ofrenda - Day of the Dead Shrines and Altars

Updated on January 21, 2015

La Ofrenda - How to Create a Shrine for Your Dearly Departed, Day of the Dead Style

What an ofrenda is, how to make one (and for whom), and where to buy items for a traditional Day of the Dead shrine.

And ofrenda is a temporary altar constructed for the Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated in Mexico and other Latin American countries as well as the southwest United States on November 1 and 2. Although primarily a Hispanic tradition, it is slowly growing into a multiculture event. The ofrenda is built to honor loved ones and friends who have died. Instead of a somber remembrance it is filled with color, humor, food and parties. Ofrendas are built in homes, public places and on graves.

There are very specific items that go into making a traditional ofrenda. November 1st is a day to honor children who have passed on. The altars built for them have their favorite toys and foods. November 2nd is the day to honor adults. A bottle of tequila or other local liquor is often put on an adult ofrenda. Orange marigolds are the favorite flower to decorate with. There are foods like Pan de Muerte (bread of the dead) and decorated sugar skulls as other treats. There are many candles, including Saints candles and votives. Pictures of the deceased are prominently displayed. A dressed skeleton called Catrina represents the ancient goddess of death is often included along with a representation of the Virgin Mary.

Altar de Muertos by Ute Hagen on Flickr.

What is an Ofrenda?

An ofrenda is a type of shrine or altar created in Mexico and the southwestern United States. Traditionally it is for the Day of the Dead celebrations held on November 1st and 2nd. The can be small home altars dedicated to family members who have passed on or large community shrines where many people are honored. They can even be for non-family members or celebrities you admire.

The Key Elements of an Ofrenda - Look farther on this page for where to get them

This is just what you start with. Be as creative and elaborate as you want. Remember that the people in the spirit world connect through the senses of sight, smell, and sound.

  • Photos of the honoree(s).
  • Statues and icons of saints and deities.
  • Lots of candles, both 7 day saints candles and plain votives.
  • Lots of flowers, fresh if you can get them, silk if you can't. And flower petals, too. Marigolds are the traditional flower to use.
  • Pan de muerto, or Bread of the Dead.
  • Skull shaped candy made from sugar and chocolate is best, but any candy is good. Candy is supposed to be mainly for children who have passed on, but I know my grandparents loved it in life, so I'm sure they love it in death.
  • Skeleton dolls, or calaveras.
  • Cigarettes and/or liquor if the honoree(s) enjoyed them in life.
  • Papel picado, or cut paper.
  • Favorite foods of the honorees.

Examples of Ofrendas

These links can give you some ideas as to how create your own.

Ofrenda Videos - For more ideas, or just to enjoy watching

Fresh Flowers for Your Ofrenda

An integral part of any ofrenda is a display of fresh flowers. Although home grown marigolds are traditional, I'm sure beautiful flowers from around the world would be appreciated by the subject of your shrine if you don't have flowers of your own.

You could employ floriography, the practice of assigning meaning to flowers, to choose flowers that express particular things. For example, you might have red roses for a deceased spouse because they mean passionate love, while white roses stand for virtue and purity so they would be good for children. And iris is considered a messenger of the gods so it would be good if you want to increase communication between you and the deceased. There is a helpful list of flower meanings on this Wikipedia entry: Language of Flowers

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Saints Candles or Veladoras

Saints candles are usually "seven day" candles which means they generally last for seven days if burned straight through. Each one is dedicated to a specific saint or holy person intended for a specific purpose. Sometimes they come with prayers printed on them that you are supposed to say each day as you pray at the altar. They can be scented or not. Sometimes they come in different colors. They are meant to help you attune to the saint and benefit from their qualities. It's easy for me to find saints candles in the hispanic sections of my local stores, but if you don't have that luxury they are readily available on eBay.

Some common saints candles are for Our Lady of Guadelupe, St. (Archangel) Michael, St. Jude, the Virgin Mary, Guardian Angel, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Joseph. Our Lady of Peace, St. Anthony, Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and the Holy Family.

The saints candles go on the upper tier of the ofrenda. Use as many as you like.

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Recipe for Pan de Muerto

or Bread of the Dead

Although the spirits can't eat the bread they enjoy the aroma. Click on the link below for the recipe at Voodoomama's Day of the Dead Altars lens.

Pan de Muerto Recipe

Papel Picado (Cut Paper)

Banners made from tissue paper cut with elaborate designs are one of the highlights of the Day of the Dead decorations. Cut paper was brought to Mexico via China, where the mexican people first encountered it at the "store" at the hacienda they lived on. Traditionally they are hand made in mexico using a chisel to cut shapes out of layers of tissue paper.

It is common to use cut paper decorations all over the world. In my part of the world, the midwestern United States, we all made snowflakes in elementary school. Kirigami is the japanese art that combines origami and cutting paper. Mexico is the only place that uses a chisel to make the cuts. There is a lot more useful info at the Wikipedia entry for Papel Picado, including the meanings of the different colors of paper.

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Copal Incense

Although any incense will do, if you want to create a traditional ofrenda copal is what you want. It is available as both sticks of incense and chunks of resin. Copal was used by ancient mesoamericans, which shows again that the practice of building an Ofrenda comes from the native peoples of Mexico who were there before the Spanish conquered them. Among neopagans copal is said to be good for purification purposes.

Sugar Skulls Recipe

Make your own grim sugar candies

The link below will take you to the recipe at Voodomama's Day of the Dead Altars Squidoo lens.

Sugar Skulls Recipe

Day of the Dead Dolls

These skeleton dolls are for the children, supposedly, but I happen to know that those in the spirit world have a pretty good sense of humor (they have no bills to pay, they can laugh). I think the dolls are for them too.

Silk Rose Petals

Fresh marigold petals are used to make a path to the ofrenda as well as decorate other parts of it, but I wouldn't be surprised if silk flower petals are now being used too.

Day of the Dead Fabric

Make an altar cloth, cushions, curtains for a table, etc.

Find More Day of the Dead Art Here

Either for your ofrenda, or just because you like it!

Day of the Dead Art

This lens is a labor of research love. I wanted to learn more about Ofrendas because I think they are fascinating. If you have anything to add from personal experience, please do! Any other comments are welcome, too.

Are you inspired?

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    • profile image

      christophergrapes 

      4 years ago

      Hello,

      its good to know that many cultures use incense , i guess in this case it is to drive away bad spirits? or evil spirits.

      Here is a short video with regards to gum copal http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WikCL2te0Ek

      this is the main ingredient for making incense sticks and its kinds.

      Very good lens by the way

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 

      6 years ago

      Totally awesome Lens, I have my copal & candles burning and my ofrenda is all a glow. This should have been a Lens of the Day (I think they fell asleep at the switch, lol). I'll add this to my Day of the Dead Lens as well if you don't mind ;-)

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      6 years ago

      Anyoñe know when I'm supposed to light my candle and how long do I let it burn for?

    • profile image

      printabledolls 

      6 years ago

      I made a shrine some months ago, I love to read stories thank you so much

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      7 years ago

      local folklore - 3 levels for your altar/ofrenda to represent the 3 deaths 1) actual death, 2nd is the mass/funeral service or burial and the 3rd death is when you are forgotten by your friends and relatives, thanks for sharing

    • Addy Bell profile image

      Addy Bell 

      8 years ago

      LOVED this lens. I live in San Francisco, where Day of the Dead is a pretty big deal, and I love seeing the public ofrendas that get set up here and there. I combine Day of the Dead with Samhain, the Celtic ancestor festival (which lives on as Halloween in the States).

      I LOL'd when I saw the DotD Hello Kitty. That was epic.

    • missbat profile image

      missbat 

      8 years ago

      I always want to make an ofrendas for my deceased family members but I've never gotten to it. Maybe this year, now that your lens has given me great tips!

    • drs2biz lm profile image

      David Schroeter 

      8 years ago from St Kilda, Victoria, Australia

      Thanks for sharing this interesting lens with us. I have lensrolled it to my Tomb Sweeping Day and Ghost Festival lenses.

    • HealthfulMD profile image

      Kirsti A. Dyer 

      8 years ago from Northern California

      I love the concept of the Day of the Dead Celebrations, or as I have it in the Dia de los Muertos lens. It is a wonderful way to honor and remember those who have died.

    • profile image

      MeelaJoubert 

      10 years ago

      I did this for our public Dia de los Muertos celebration here several years ago. Based mine on African traditions, though.

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