How to build a Catholic Altar

The souls of our beloved departed will always be in hearts. Every year the Diocese of Orange has celebrated Dia de los Muertos and All Souls Day with Masses in honor of the dead at our local cemeteries. Last year’s Dia de los Muertos Mass, celebrated by Bishop Freyer, was a colorful celebration that included a Mass in memory of our departed, as well as a display of altars from participating parishes that were comprised of food and photos remembering former parishioners who had passed. 

This year, the celebration will be different. Due to the ongoing pandemic, safety protocols have limited how we honor the departed. Bishop Vann will be blessing a Day of the Dead altar that all of us can visit virtually. The blessing will be videotaped and available for viewing online between Oct. 28 and Nov. 2. To view the blessing, visit occem.org. 

Parishioners are encouraged to make their own altars to celebrate deceased loved ones. 

 

A GUIDE TO CREATING YOUR OWN CATHOLIC ALTAR AT HOME FOR DIA DE LOS MUERTOS 

Here is a list of the most important things with a brief explanation of why they are used. Remember that each altar is personal and should reflect your family and those who are being honored, remembered, celebrated and commemorated. 

 

WATER 

Symbolizes purity of the soul. Serves so that those souls can quench their thirst when visiting us. Also represents Jesus – the living water (John 4:14). Holy Water can be utilized. 

 

SALT  

Salt is a purification element that represents helping the body of the soul. It also is biblical; Leviticus 2:13 and when Jesus says to his disciples to be salt (Matthew 5:13-16). 

 

CANDLES OR VOTIVES  

All candles, votive or paschal candles have one purpose–to give light. Light means faith, hope – the hope that all of our souls will be with God. In some indigenous communities each candle would represent a deceased person. Purple candles represent mourning. These candles can also be placed in the form of a cross. (Matthew 5: 13-16 & 1 John 1:7) 

 

COPAL 

A copal is a bowl or goblet-looking object that incense can be burned in to signify our prayers or praises. For many the copal reminds them of the incense that is used in churches or for special occasions. 

 

FLOWERS  

Flowers signify the festivities. Through their colors and fragrance they help celebrate our loved ones, so there may be joy. 

 

CEMPASÚCHIL  

This is the flower of the dead. It is an indispensable item for it is said that these flowers help guide the deceased with their smell and color. It’s for this reason that sometimes a walkway is made with these flowers. The flower of cempasúchil means, in the language of the Aztecs, náhuatl“twenty flower”; many petals that helps us intercede for ourselves and our loved ones. 

 

THE HOLY ROSARY  

The Rosary is a symbol of our faith that helps us intercede for ourselves and for our loved ones. It assists in contemplating the sacrifice of our redeemer. 

 

THE CRUCIFIX 

The Crucifix is representative of our faith and it unites the day of the dead altar with our belief in the resurrection of all. 

 

BREAD 

Bread, for the Church, represents “The Body of Christ.” It is one of the most-prized elements in an altar. Another form of bread used is the “pan de muerto” or day of the dead bread that reminds of humanity. Without bread there is no life. 

 

PHOTOS 

Pictures of our deceased, those who have gone before us, family or relatives. Their photos help in remembering them, praying for them and helps liberate them, if they find themselves in purgatory. 

 

FOOD  

Apples represent the blood, while cooked sweetened pumpkin represents kindness. Traditional plates or alcoholic drinks can be used; it is customary to utilize food that is favored by those you are honoring. It is said that the souls of our deceased enjoy this food as they enjoyed it when they were alive. 

 

SUGAR SKULLS 

They refer to death, which is always present. The smaller skulls can be dedicated to the Holy Spirit and one large skull to represent God the Father. 

 

PAPEL PICADO 

Perforated paper with folk art signifies the air and the joy as we celebrate Día de los Muertos. 

 

IMAGES OF SAINTS OR HOLY PEOPLE  

We use these images so that they may assist through their intercession; they are bridges between the dead and the living and when placed on the altar they become synonymous with good relationships. 

 

TABLECLOTH OR METATE 

The tablecloth or metate functions as a place to rest or as in the case of tablecloth decorative to lay offerings on. The preferred colors are purple, black, white. 

 

SOAP, WATER AND TOWEL 

These items are for the soul to wash their hands, to be clean after a long trip. 

 

THE HOLY CROSS  

This symbol can be made in ashes, with the cempasúchil flowers or with salt in order to atone for any sins. 

 

CANDIES  

Candies represent the sweetness of life and death. They can be made in various forms; animals, shoes, caskets, etc. They can also be favorite candy of the deceased. 

SOURCE:DIOCESE OF ORANGE HISPANIC MINISTRY 

 

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