Rituals and The Day of the Dead

Essay, 2016

8 Pages, Grade: 95%


Rosie Ung

Both questions of what ritual is and what makes a ritual a ritual, are most resistant to sufficient definitive answers (Kapferer 2005, p. 36). Ritual has therefore always been associated with sociocultural order, an arena for political, economic and social expression (Handelman 2005, p.2). These associations no doubt give ritual life and it cannot be said that one can exist without the other, however, to analyze ritual in and of itself, we must try to see the true value of ritual apart from these associations (Handelman 2005, p.2). Don Handelman suggests separating ritual from its social and cultural surroundings before reinserting the ritual back. This allows us to ‘glean insight into the domain of ritual in its own right’ (2005, p.4). He then proposes three important platforms in order to gauge the features that make up ritual; how it is organized, how it is practiced and how it transforms (Handelman 2005, p.4).

I arrived the night of November 2nd, 2014 at Oaxaca’s largest cemetery, the Panteon General. Close to midnight the cemetery was buzzing with festivities. Within its walls, there were amusement rides, live music, games and stalls selling street snacks along with hundreds of people enjoying them. The cemetery itself was kept separate from the festivities. Inside was dark and only candles from the tombstones brought light. People were dressed up in costume, some children wore upper-class garments, adults as skeletons and monsters, their face painted black around the eyes and white in contrast. Catrina, a female skeleton dressed in European upper-class garments is popular (Craw 2015, p.1). Families were huddled around their decorated grave sites playing cards, eating and laughing. Octavio Paz (cited in Weiss 2010, para.1) once wrote that the Mexican ‘is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love’. Dia de Los Muertos or Day of the Dead is a festival celebrated throughout Mexico in honour of their ancestors and loved ones who have died. They believe that for one night the dead visit the living. Angelitos or the deceased children return in the evening of October 31st, November 1st is in commemoration of the martyrs and saints and November 2nd welcomes all the departed (Craw 2015, p.1). The festival usually begins with cleaning the grave site at the cemetery and/or constructing an ofrenda or altar, at home. ‘Flowers of the dead’ such as yellow marigold and magenta cockscomb are used as decorations as well as to help the dead find their way home (Craw 2015, p.1). Poems and pictures of the deceased and papeles picados, colour paper cut outs of skeletons doing living things such as ironing are also used as decoration . Other offerings include pan de muerto, a round egg bread with criss-cross strips made out to look like bones and tears, sugar candies and chocolate in the shape of calavera or skulls, mole, tamales, toys for the children and, for the adults tequila and mezcal (Craw 2015, p.1). In the evening of November 2nd, families begin a night-long vigil at the grave site celebrating and welcoming passed loved ones. The rituals consisting the Day of the Dead (DOTD) are historically seen as a form of ancestor worship, originally dedicated to the Aztec goddess Queen of the underworld, Mictecachiatl.

During the DOTD people get to dress up as skeletons, ghosts, and monsters. Victor Turner viewed this as a form of status reversal, where participants are allowed to mimic the entities that they fear, which in this case entities of the afterlife, unconsciously relating to the very power that threatens them (Turner 1995, p.174). This form of mimic also allows people to tame their resentment felt over the conditions of inequality and unfairness, this is done by mocking these threatening entities via celebrating death, wearing grotesque masks and costumes. Momentarily creating a balance between death and the people fear it (Turner 1995, p.174). Turner argues that rituals can be a platform for critiquing social structure and an outlet for expressing resentment derived from social inequalities (2005, p.174). These structures and inequalities can be seen through the lens of suffering, pre-existing structures that define the process of grieving, the inequalities, and helplessness due to the pain of lost ones (Turner 1995, p.174). Turner adds that the social slate temporarily becomes clean, allowing for social structures in real life to continue without the resentment. The DOTD also expresses dimensions of play and the ludic (Turner 1967, p.45). These dimensions entertain as well as push the social boundaries. Carl Jung suggests that the comedic character or trickster has the ability to create novel meanings, bring light to outdated systems, potential to see things in a new perspective (1968, p.167). Turner also suggests that monstrous figures and masks are thought provoking, that these images shock and propel participants in thinking about people, relationships, and objects, of which they have taken for granted (1995, p.105). The calavera is a popular figure in the DOTD festivities, participants may think of the qualities, religious significance, metaphoric properties and the relationship between themselves and this image. The stage where the ritualist is ambiguous, this in between is called the luminal period, where one is removed from their position, and with that, removed from their old habits of thought, action and feeling (Gennep cited in Turner 1995, p.94). This period allows participants the ‘freedom to juggle with the factors of existence’ (Turner 1995, p.106).

Inspired by Turner, Bruce Kapferer calls this potential space, virtuality (2005, p.48). Internal processes of rites can have the potency to change, transform, and alter the existential circumstances of individuals and groups beyond the ritual setting (Kapferer 2005, p.48). The everyday ordinary realities of people as they pass through, live and construct are continuously flowing, forming and chaotic, the ‘virtual reality of rite’ however is the slowing down of everyday life, holding in suspension some of the vital qualities of reality (Kapferer 2005, p.48). This allows ritualists to engage with the structuring and positioning of processes that would be impossible to attend to in the ordinary tempo of lived processes (Kapferer 2005, p.48).

Don Handelman states that the more complex a ritual is the more self-organizing it tends to be (2005, p,12). Self-organization keeps the ritual intact, where autonomy is derived from within the ritual realm rather that without (Handelman 2005, p.12). Handelman refers to this as ‘degrees of curvature’. The more complex and autonomous the more curved, creating its own space, whereas lesser self-organized rituals, the straighter the line as if side by side with sociocultural factors (Handelman 2005, p.12). Complex rituals have the ability to create a unique arena where time and space acquire a new depth where and when no openings existed before, shifting, reorganizing and ultimately made different (Handelman 2005, p.12). The DOTD consist of many rituals, from cleaning the tombstone to making tamales as an offering. These rituals come together to create a unique space, where new meanings are created, where death becomes something fun and entertaining.

Don Seeman argues that rituals play an important role in theodicy, whenever meaning has been questioned or threatened by circumstance or by pain (Seeman 2005, p.56). Suffering propels the individual to find meaning and looks for ritual virtuosity that confirms this meaning (Weber cited in Seeman 2005 p.60). However, the purpose is not to alleviate the suffering but find a way in which to make the physical pain or personal loss bearable (Geertz cited in Seeman 2005, p.60). This is done through rituals which allow a momentary gateway between reality and the imagined ideal world. The pain experienced due to personal loss propels people to seek rituals that explain the suffering and in the case of the DOTD seek alternative experiences to death and grief. Social systems may create rituals in order to prevent collapse under the weight of grief (Geertz cited in Seeman 2005, p.60). The DOTD helps individuals heal through ritual. Galina Lindquist argues that the journey of ritual healing is an imaginal performance and somatisation play an important role in this process (Lindquist 2005, p. 159). Imagination can be understood as the ‘capacity of the self to act in the world of embodied images of consciousness’ (Csordas cited in Lindquist 2005, p. 157). Similarly, memory can be viewed as a embodied self-process which can be presented consciously via visual, auditory and olfactory modalities (Lindquist 2005, p. 166). Lindquist likens the remembering self to a visitor at a museum where one ‘encounters embodies images of people and objects and delights in them or recoils from them, but does not change the exposition’ (2005, p. 166). The ritual journey through imagination can allow the participant to alter memory and therefore receive a new experience of the past thus complementing and even replacing the old memory. This reconstitution of memory can equal a reconstitution of the self (Lindquist 2005, p. 166). Forgiveness is also an important step in healing. Mexico is the largest Catholic population in the world and without forgiveness, the relationship between God and human would not exist. In Catholicism, forgiveness can be defined as an 'act of being restored to a good relationship with God others and self, followed by the period of alienation known in Christian tradition as sin' (Lindquist 2005, p. 169). The beginning of the process of forgiveness is the movement towards the other and is essential in restoring broken bonds. Within the religious community forgiveness between God and person should result in forgiveness between social persons, therefore restoring the broken fabrics of society (Lindquist 2005, p. 170).

Rituals have the power to reconstruct experiences and reform participants. Rituals are conveniently orientated towards exploiting particular symbolic formations in a way that assists in shaping human perception and therefore experience (Kapferer 2006, p.49). The ritualist discovers this dynamic potential that may have the potency to transform the experience and the situations that surround them (Kapferer 2006, p.49). Handelman proposes that to achieve transformation, the ritual must create its own universe with its own logic, or what he calls ‘logos of the phenomenon' (Handelman 2005, p. 3). This logic does not have to be consciously understood, perceived or even registered by the ritualists. However, it needs to be practiced into creation in order for the possibility of transformation to occur (Lindquist 2005, p. 158). Ritual is, therefore, a period of imagination and creation, similar to a cosmology where a new classification is birthed.

The interior features of ritual create, generate and produce effects. Rituals such as the DOTD gain their power by being self-generating and independent from reality and therefore independent of representation (Handelman 2005, p.27). This self-integrity away from the world allows ritual to enter into life's existential processes, with the aid of imagination, create the potential to transform participants. Ritual has the ability to create different realms where imagination and possibility have the potential to change the world. Even though in modern times, more contemporary beliefs have merged Catholic theology with the festival the potency of this festival is still evident to the people who emerge from the other side. The DOTD as its own imaginal reality or virtuality provide participants the platform to forgive, change, grow and become anew via the ritual.


Craw, V 2015, What Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival is really all about, News, retrieved 25 May 2016, <http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/what-mexicos-day-of-the-dead-festival-is-really-all-about/news-story/0aaba8381b866937d12cdb7dcb21c193>.

Droogers, A 2005, ‘Enjoying an Emerging Alternative World’, in D Handelman & G Lindquist (eds), Ritual in its own right: exploring the dynamics of transformation, Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 138-154.

Handelman, D 2005,’Introduction’, in D Handelman & G Lindquist (eds), Ritual in its own right: exploring the dynamics of transformation, Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 1-32.

Jung, CG 1969, ‘On the psychology of the trickster-figure’ in Four archetypes: mother, rebirth, spirit, trickster, Routledge, London, pp. 159-179.

Kapferer, B 2005,’Ritual Dynamics and Virtual Practice’, in D Handelman & G Lindquist (eds), Ritual in its own right: exploring the dynamics of transformation, Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 35-54.

Lindquist, G 2005, ‘Bringing the Soul Back to the Self’, in D Handelman & G Lindquist (eds), Ritual in its own right: exploring the dynamics of transformation, Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 157-173.

Seeman, D 2005, ‘Otherwise Than Meaning’, in D Handelman & G Lindquist (eds), Ritual in its own right: exploring the dynamics of transformation, Berghahn Books, New York, pp. 55-72.

Turner, V W 1967, ‘Betwixt and between: luminal phase in rites de passage’, in VW Turner (ed) The forest of symbols: aspects of Ndembu ritual, Cornwell University Press, New York, pp. 93-111, retrieved 25 May 2016, Deakin University Library database.

Turner, V W 1995, ‘Humility and Hierarchy The Liminality of Status Elevation and Reversal’, in VW Turner (ed) The ritual process: structuring and anti-structure, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, pp. 94-131, retrieved 25 May 2016, University of Exeter Library database.

Weiss, A 2010, Why Mexican celebrate the Day of the Dead, The Guardian, retrieved 25 May 2016, <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/02/mexican-celebrate-day-of-dead>.

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Rituals and The Day of the Dead
Deakin University
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Day of the dead, rituals, myths, anthropology
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Rosie Ung (Author), 2016, Rituals and The Day of the Dead, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356218


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