Within the altar, it is common to find the elements fire, earth, water and air represented. Candles are used as the first one, also having the function of lighting the way and guiding the soul back to the world of the dead, so it is sometimes possible to find the candles forming a cross, indicating the four cardinal points and also in a straight line from the bottom up along the altar or offering.
Because the offering is done as a memorial to those loved ones who have gone, there are usually photographs or portraits of the person for whom the altar is dedicated. Furthermore, in order to make the offering more personalized, we can also arrange, in the different levels of the altar, objects that belonged to the individuals such as clothing, toys, accessories ... or things that the deceased enjoyed in life, as cigarettes, music or any other item to make him feel at home again.
With its bright orange, the marigold flower (or zempoaxochitl) is the most common in the Altar de Muertos. Its striking beauty and its strong aroma represent the earth and serve as a guide to attract the souls of the dead and help them to find the Altar. Flowers can be placed forming cross or as a path to be followed by the souls. Purple flowers are also used to represent mourning and white ones, representing heaven.
SALT AND WATER
Two symbolic elements that also appear in the Altar de Muertos are salt and water. In the first case, salt serves as a symbol of purification, not to corrupt the soul in its brief time on earth; water, on the other hand, is provided in order to refresh and clean the traveler before re-rest.
Copal is a resin that, when burned, smokes a strong and pleasant aroma. Its function is to purify the air, chase away evil spirits and bring, through scent, the person to whom is dedicated the offering. Today it is common to find incense on the altars of the dead as a replacement that has the same function.
Originally, the Aztecs used to utilize bark paper (a fiber made from tree bark) to represent the wind due to its malleability and lightness. They painted deities, symbols and inscriptions relating to death, decorating the altars during the death ceremonies. Currently this material has been replaced by the typical confetti; a thin brightly colored paper that is cut to form all sorts of figures, from skulls and pumpkins, to letters and portraits. On the altar is possible to find a kind of guide or garland that decorates making it more attractive
The skulls are allusions to death. Colored and on different sizes, they can be made of plaster or paperboard, or even edible materials, such as chocolate, sugar or amaranth. They are used as a reminder of the fate of every human being, presenting death as inevitable and not at all scary, taking it with humor, and sometimes one can even find the name of living people in front of these "skulls".
FOOD & DRINK
The souls that travel overnight into the world come from far away, and to regain strength nothing better than a good feast. In the altar traditional Mexican dishes are placed, as well as those dishes that were favorites of the deceased. Seasonal fruits and drinks (alcoholic, soft drinks...) are also included. Furthermore, the traditional pan de muerto and sweet pumpkin cannot be missed.
Since the Day of the Dead is the result of the mix of American pre-Hispanic traditions with the European ones from the time of the Conquest, Catholic elements are also present. Thus, crosses, rosaries, candles and pictures of saints or virgins can be placed at the different levels of the Altar. The objective is to facilitate the passage of the deceased through purgatory (if he were there) or straight to heaven, entrusting the soul to these religious figures.
As mentioned above, the composition and structure of the offerings vary according to the region of america in which it is found, in addition to the personal beliefs of the person building it. Some elements which are also found, for example, can be a sculpture of a classic Mexican dog breed; Xoloitzcuintle, that will help the souls to cross the first dimensions before getting to heaven and one can use some gold coins, a practice that is related to the Greek idea of burying the dead with coins to pay the ferryman that leads to the underworld.