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Mental Health and Spirituality: How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar to Honor Ancestors

This is my favorite week of the year. Not only is it fall, the fairest season of them all, but it’s the week I met my husband. The week we got married (three years later). And the week of Day of the Dead — a three-day celebration honoring our ancestors. A time to remember whom we come from. To celebrate their lives. And to help us celebrate ours. 

With Day of the Dead approaching, I’ve had altars on my mind. So naturally, I began jotting down my thoughts. First, I looked up alter, the verb, as in to alter, meaning a change in character or composition, which I found fitting for altar, the noun, referring to the holy spaces created for spiritual purposes. And it got me thinking. 

We are changing the composition (to alter) when we create a spiritual space (an altar). Altars are holy vortexes. The spaces to welcome good energy into. To keep bad energy out of. The spaces to remember our ancestors. To connect with spirit and the energy around us. In doing so, we change the composition of the space. And in changing the composition of the space around us, we’re changing our character. Enlightening ourselves to what existence means. To the unspoken connection we have to everything around us. Because believe it or not, it’s there. 

For Day of the Dead, we get to celebrate the lives of our ancestors, and in turn, celebrate life in general. Be in a state of gratitude. On our best behavior. Because we can always be better to ourselves when we focus on being good to others as well. And when we get to honor our ancestors. To connect with them. To celebrate them. It uplifts our spirits. Because it’s in recognizing the dead that we can fully embrace life. Remember what’s important. Remember who we are. And remember to never lose touch. 

altar for ancestors
Here’s my altar so far — still a work in progress.  

Making an Altar

So beginning today, on Halloween, the first day of Day of the Dead, in addition to putting on a witch’s hat and passing out candy to little ones, I’ll also be decorating an altar for passed loved ones.

Filling it with flowers and candles and some of their favorite things. The things we put on display or keep safe and don’t use every day — my great grandma’s tea set, my grandpa’s martini glass, my grandma’s silver serving spoon; jewelry, pocket knives, wine glasses — the things that help us celebrate them.

My Day of the Dead altar consists of the following; make yours however you like, just remember to bring in light and love:

  • Flowers — I’ve read that marigolds are a popular Day of the Dead flower as they guide the spirits of the dead.
  • Butterflies — specifically monarch butterflies to carry the spirits of the dead.
  • Something for all four elements — 
    • Paper for air
    • Fresh flowers for earth
    • Candles for fire
    • Liquid for water 
  • Pictures of your ancestors — to celebrate their lives.
  • A few of their favorite foods and some of their personal items — to give them the comforts of a life once lived.


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Mental Health and Spirituality: How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar to Honor Ancestors

Jenna Grace

Jenna Grace is a writer and educator with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder (SPD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder (SAD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) diagnoses. She writes and speaks about topics including healing from trauma, coping with neurological disorder and practicing mindfulness in order to help others and to explore new meaning. Visit her website for more of her stories.

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APA Reference
Grace, J. (2019). Mental Health and Spirituality: How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar to Honor Ancestors. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Nov 2019
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