Days of the Dead Altar Exhibition

October 3 – November 29, 2020
Due to continued Covid-19 precautions and in valuing the health of our community, we will not be holding the popular Day of the Dead family celebration in 2020. We encourage you to visit the altar exhibition October 3-November 29 at FWMoA and to participate in the Community Altar! Details below.

This community-centered altar exhibition includes traditional elements of the ancient Latin American holiday, Dia de los Muertos, such as sugar skulls, colorful tissue paper cutouts, and photos or personal items of deceased relatives to honor the souls of the departed.

The holiday has evolved from a blend of Meso-American and Christian cultures, and those traditions come to life with this celebratory exhibition at FWMoA featuring memorials created by artists, families, and community groups from throughout the region.


Participate in the 2020 Community Altar

The Community Altar is included in the exhibition as a way for you to honor a deceased loved one publicly in the FWMoA Dia de los Muertos exhibition! In 2020, we’re simplifying the Community Altar to keep everything hands-free for you and our staff!

About the tradition 

Dia de los Muertos, a holiday celebrated in Mexico and many parts of Latin America, is considered a festive time when family members remember and honor their dead and the continuity of life. At FWMoA, a series of artist and family-made altars fill a gallery, often honoring deceased loved ones or groups of individuals who have died for a cause or as a result of persecution or injustice. Common symbols include colorful skeletal figures, laughing in the face of death, or the glamorous La Catrinabased on a famous etching by Mexican printmaker Jose Guadalupe Posada, which depicts a female skeleton dressed in aristocratic styles of Europeans of her time. This figure satirizes those Mexican natives who Posada felt were over imitating European traditions of the aristocracy in the pre-revolutionary era.


How to Participate 

Honor your deceased loved one in name only   
Fill out the form at the link above with your loved one’s name, and we’ll write their name on a paper butterfly and place on the Community Altar. Due to limited space and supplies, we are only able to accept the first 100 submissions.

Honor your deceased loved one with a photo and short caption
Fill out the form at the link above with your loved one’s name, their photo, and a short message about their life, and we’ll display this information on the Community Altar. Due to limited space and supplies, we are only able to accept the first 50 submissions.

Submit an Altar Proposal
Members of the community are vital to this exhibition! Join others in their love of the Dia de los Muertos altar tradition in creating an altar for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Download the application below to send us your proposal by September 28!

Print and Submit an Alter Application


For both options, submissions are accepted between September 18-November 20, 2020. Questions can be directed to Capri Williams at


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Understanding El día de los muertos

What is El día de los muertos (The Day of the Dead)?

Toward the end of October and the beginning of November, a certain love begins to stir in the hearts of indigenous communities of Mexico. A celebration, a feast, a remembrance filled with joy and care enters homes and communities as El día de los muertos is observed. For indigenous communities of Mexico, the day commemorates a yearly ritual of remembering loved ones who have passed away, and exist as spirits just beyond the earthly realm. For aboriginal communities, there is a kinship obligation to loved ones that remains unbroken even after death.  During the festivities that take place at the end of October and beginning of November (a period that coincides with the completion of the maize cultivation cycle), indigenous families believe that the spirits of their loved ones can return by their side if they facilitate their homecoming by engaging in specific rituals: visiting their place of rest, laying a path of flowers from the cemetery to their homes, lighting candles. In addition, families honor the memory of their departed loved ones by dedicating a space in the home just for them—the space is an altar or a memorial that includes food, crafts, articles of belonging, pictures, and flowers, among other things. These objects reinforce memory because family members remember their loved ones; for example, what foods they ate, what articles they wore, or the favorite drink. Stories are told about them too so as to not forget. These actions also reinforce connection across generations as new family members learn about those who have preceded them. Great care is given to this ritual of remembering because in the process the loved ones are reunited for a period of time. It is important to understand that this sense of kinship responsibility conveys the cultural value of family—cherished, respected, and honored across time and forms of existence. In this way, love is a bond reinstated by memory and ritual.

In 2008, this indigenous festivity was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Do only indigenous communities celebrate El día de los muertos?

No. In Mexico, people observe the day across the country. These people vary in racial and religious affiliations. They also can observe it in a variety of ways. For example, Catholics observe the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1st, and All Souls’ Day on November 2 by visiting cemeteries, laying flowers, and attending mass. In addition, Mexican American families in the United States also observe the Holiday.

Do only Mexicans observe El día de los muertos?

No. Many cultures have rituals for observing the memory of loved ones who have passed away. In Latin America and Spain, Catholicism influenced the manner that this remembrance is carried out. But in general people visit cemeteries and bring flowers.

Is El día de los muertos a worship of the dead and in conflict with Christian practice?

It is important to always consider the intent of those who observe El día de los muertos. In general, people are simply trying to establish a loving connection with their loved ones who have passed way. Universally all people experience the loss of a loved one at some point in their life. The manner that people react to the loss is defined by personal need, religious belief, and cultural practice. Some cultures do not talk about their deceased loves ones because it hurts too much. Others talk about their loved ones often in order to remain connected with them, to not forget them, to keep them close to mind and heart.


What are the elements of the memorial or altar? 

The altar is a dedication to a loved one and in general reflects a family expression, so it is “right” as long as it reflects the love and devotion of a loved one remembering their dearly departed. Nonetheless, you may use the following as a guide to build an altar.

The altar has various levels. At the top, there is a spiritual or religious image, such as a cross or a picture of a Saint. The next level down includes candles and lights. The next level can include offerings, such as sugar skulls, pan de muerto, and salt. The next level would include the image of the dearly departed. These can be surrounded by candles and marigolds. You may also include objects that belonged to the person who passed away. And the bottom level of the altar you can add marigolds and papel picado. Often, altars are colorful and include images of death and life. These remind us that life and death coexist with each other. As such, the color reminds of the joys of reunion provided by our memory.

Specific elements included in altars:

  • A Cross
  • An image of the dearly departed special Saint, such as their namesake Saint
  • Image(s) of dearly departed
  • Personal Objects of the deceased loved one
  • Candles
  • Flowers, specifically cempasúchil flowers
  • Sugar skulls: candy skulls made of white sugar and often displayed with color decorations
  • Pan de muerto: Sweet bread made specially for the Day of the Dead.
  • A glass of water. The journey of a loved one is a long one, so water satiates their thirst after their long journey.
  • Food. People choose food and drinks that their loved one enjoyed in life. Some traditional foods include tamales and atole, among others.
  • Papel Picado: paper cutouts with images of skulls, skeletons, flowers, crosses, etc.
  • Copal Incense. Peopled used copal as a symbol for purification.

Thank you to PFW Associate Professor of Spanish Karla Zepeda for her contributions to this information!


El día de los muertos Alters 

El día de los muertos Alters

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