Many universities, including the University of Arizona, have been forced to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies because of COVID-19. This photo was taken during the 2018 ceremony.
Many universities, including the University of Arizona, have been forced to cancel in-person graduation ceremonies because of COVID-19. This photo was taken during the 2018 ceremony.

Grieving Rituals Lost to COVID-19

Maribel Alvarez, an associate research professor in the School of Anthropology, says finding new rituals is important when navigating uncertain times.
April 9, 2020
Extra Info: 

Read Maribel Alvarez's essay "Folklife in the Age of Pandemics" for more recommendations to turn this time of physical distance into a productive exercise of curiosity.

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university's COVID-19 webpage.

For UANews coverage of COVID-19, visit https://uanews.arizona.edu/news/covid19.

Maribel Alvarez
Maribel Alvarez

As people around the world self-isolate to slow the spread of COVID-19, many time-honored rituals, including graduations, proms, weddings and even funerals have been canceled.

The absence of these rituals at such a stressful time is no trifling loss, says Maribel Alvarez, an associate research professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

Alvarez, the Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore in the UArizona Southwest Center, says that people should acknowledge the pain they feel over the temporary loss of meaningful social rituals and embrace the challenge of creating new ones. 

Why are Rituals so Important?

"Rituals are considered almost universal human practices, very much associated with everyday life, as well as how you mark special occasions," said Alvarez, who is also the associate dean of community engagement for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Rituals force us to pause the rush of our daily lives, she said.

"In this sense, a ritual is different from a custom, because customary behaviors are things that we do without thinking about them. Ritual is a moment in time during which we – individually or as a group – pay attention to something," she said.

Important transitions in our lives are commonly marked by rituals.

Folklorist Arnold van Gennep first introduced the concept of rites of passage in 1909, writing: "The life of an individual in any society is a series of passages … birth, social puberty, marriage, death. For every one of these events, there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another."

Rituals form a framework for understanding these moments and also helping people remember peak emotional experiences, Alvarez said, which is why parents will willingly sit through a three-hour convocation ceremony to hear their child's name announced.

Acknowledging the Loss

Alvarez says the disruption of rituals can be detrimental.

"One of the positive functions of ritual is to help us negotiate transitions," Alvarez said, noting that even happy transitions, such as graduation or the arrival of a new baby, come with stress. "Ritual provides us all a soft landing for those kinds of conflicts."

The cancelation of an event like a graduation ceremony may feel minor when considered in the broader scope of the health and economic tragedies resulting from the pandemic. However, when such rituals are disrupted, it can cause disorientation, Alvarez said.  

"I think the first thing that we need to do is acknowledge the loss. Acknowledge the disruption. Not take it lightly," Alvarez said, noting that she cried when she realized that she wouldn't be able to present a doctoral student with whom she'd been working for five years with a hood at graduation. "We are symbolic beings; we derive meaning from actions that are symbolic. Yes, of course, we will be OK without a graduation ceremony. But will it add to the psychic burden that we're carrying in this moment to not have that moment of celebration? Yes."

Finding New Rituals

A challenge and opportunity during this time is to find new rituals. One of the great things about being a human is that we're extremely adaptable, Alvarez said.

Alvarez points to the End of Life: Continuum Project, run by the Southwest Folklife Alliance, which examined the traditions, expressions and practices associated with end of life, mourning and death in communities.

The project provides multiple examples of people's resourcefulness, as well as their determination to create "self-authorized" rituals by doing things like making beaded bracelets in hospital waiting rooms, creating home altars and establishing "ghost bikes" as monuments to people lost in biking accidents.

"One of the things we learn is that people use what is available, or – in other words – people make lemonade out of lemons," said Alvarez, who is the founder and folklorist for the Southwest Folklife Alliance, a nonprofit affiliate of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

As we see the emergence of things like online church services and concerts from people's homes, technology – often thought to be the enemy of genuine connection – is a saving grace right now, Alvarez said.

"I know that Zoom (videoconferencing) is not ideal, but imagine not having that – not being able to see each other or to connect with people," she said.

Although people are being creative, Alvarez stresses that a key component of ritual is often absent in virtual events. Rituals often depend on collective physical actions, such as a graduating class processing onto the stage, and often the experience of an event is not just the event itself, but the ritualized activities surrounding it – from choosing the right outfit to sharing food.

"I don't want to be Pollyannaish about it or downplay the fact that while we have these online platforms and we can be adaptive, one of the key elements of ritual – that actionable part of performing the ritual – is challenged by the passivity of sedentary interactions," Alvarez said.

On an individual level, Alvarez suggests that people take ordinary activities, such as drinking your morning coffee in your favorite chair or preparing food, and embellish or ritualize them.

Ritualizing everyday activities can be soothing, give us a sense of control, and "bring that sense from the Buddhist tradition of being conscious and present," Alvarez said.

When We Meet Again

What about when this is over and we are once again allowed to congregate with our fellow humans? Will our rituals be smaller as we adopt a more tentative approach to social gatherings? Or will we rebound with a newfound appreciation of our need to be together, eager to participate in parades and concerts and Super Bowl viewing parties with relative strangers?

"There is no doubt that the reason we gather in sports events and concerts and in weddings and funerals is that we are social animals," Alvarez said. "This physical isolation will have to give at some point. We want to be with other people."

But, yes, certain aspects of rituals may change, she said. For example, some types of ritualized physical contact, such as shaking hands in church, could be replaced by other symbolic ways of expressing relationships.

"As any student of culture knows, change is constant, and what people do with traditions is always adapting to new circumstances," Alvarez said. "But I don't think we have to fear it. You can bet that until the last human being is alive on this planet, we will try to signal to another human being some sort of message of meaning and community."