Rituals and Rites of Passage

Rituals and Rites of Passage


By Karen Sternheimer

On January 20, 2021, along with nearly 39 million people across the country, I watched the presidential inauguration. An inauguration is more than just a swearing-in ceremony; it includes a presidential address, followed by events like the “pass in review,” where the first and second couples (and in non-pandemic times, their guests) watch as a series of military processionals pass by to celebrate a new commander-in-chief from the steps of the Capitol building. Along with three former presidents and their spouses, the newly-inaugurated leaders also laid a wreath at Arlington Cemetery at the tomb of the unknown soldier, which included a prayer, the performance of the national anthem, and a military canon salute.

Moments after the ceremony, I attended a funeral for a beloved aunt via Zoom. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, most of my family and I could not travel to be there, and only a small number of family members were allowed to attend the brief graveside service. Along with about 75 others, I watched the rituals on my computer: the prayers, a eulogy, the family members putting dirt in the grave as the coffin is lowered into the ground.

As someone who generally eschews rituals (I’m not a fan of weddings and did not have one when I got married), I was fascinated by the rituals I watched that day. Sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote about the importance of rituals. Connected to his concept of collective consciousness, rituals reinforce the distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred can go beyond religious rituals to include important shared symbols, and the profane refers to everyday, mundane activities. Applying Durkheim’s ideas, sociologists Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz wrote in their 1994 book Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History that highly scripted events in part serve to create rituals that draw people together, unified by the shared experience.

That the inauguration took place exactly two weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol made the rituals celebrating the peaceful transfer of power all the more meaningful. Taking place at the Capitol’s western front facing the National Mall, the ceremony happened at the same place as where crowds had illegally gathered and stormed the building during the attack, leading to concerns about further violence taking place during the inauguration and the presence of 26,000 National Guard troops.

The inauguration represented a continuation of the social order, something Durkheim described as maintained through upholding shared values and norms. The performance of the national anthem is one example of an affirmation of shared values. Its lyrics celebrate the survival of the flag after the attack by the British during the War of 1812, during which the Capitol was set on fire.

As Lady Gaga sang the anthem that day, it took on added meaning as she appeared to gesture to the flag flying atop the Capitol, symbolizing that our democracy survived the January 6th attack. As Jonathan Wynn recently wrote, the Capitol siege was rife with symbols, not the least of which were the flags the rioters brought into the building. The celebration of shared symbols, such as the Stars and Stripes, which filled the National Mall that day to represent the people unable to attend due to the pandemic, seemed to reaffirm the continuation of the republic.

While the symbols, rituals, and music of the inauguration provided a sense of connection to a shared past, watching a funeral on Zoom with each attendee mourning in their own separate window seemed to reaffirm our disconnection. Part of the funeral ritual involves coming together to grieve a loss with others, share meals, and as Durkheim might say, step back from the “profane” aspects of everyday life to partake in sacred rituals. As I wrote in 2007 when my grandmother passed away, our family shared stories, including some funny ones about her being a bit of a prankster in her youth, but we have not been able to do this for my aunt, at least not yet. My cousin posted on social media that what she missed the most were the simple hugs family members can share, especially since she is at high risk for COVID-19.

Rituals are important touchstones in our lives, and even after our lives have ended. As the millions of students who have celebrated graduations online can attest, the absence of celebrating traditional rituals can be a form of loss itself.

What other reasons highlight why rituals are so important? What other rituals has the pandemic altered?

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