Rituals in the Making is a five-year research project that examines COVID-19 death, mourning, and memory. Our research team is made up of students and faculty in the Anthropology Department at George Washington University. Together, we study how the pandemic has changed the way we grieve and remember, asking the simple but hard question: How do we mourn when we cannot gather in person? We are especially interested in how rituals typically conducted in the physical presence of others have been adapted to virtual spaces through platforms like Zoom and FaceTime. We also consider the impact of misinformation about the virus on mourning and remembrance, and the longer-term social effects of extended grief and delayed or suspended rituals.
Global crises, whether wars or pandemics, transform social life, and challenge all of us to confront difficult choices. Do we accept or resist virtual rituals? Do we improvise on the practices we’re used to? Do we create entirely new practices? Do we wait until it’s over?
Left: Sarah Wagner helps prepare luminaries for the memorial vigil kicking off Marked By COVID’s “Lobby Days” in Washington DC, July 26, 2021. Photo by Alejandro Perez. Right: Signage at the In America: How Could This Happen . . . installation in November 2021. Photo by Sarah Wagner.
We don’t make these choices in a vacuum. Complex factors such as geography, social inequity, race, ethnicity, cultural tradition, and religious background shape the way we reconcile obligations to the dead with the constraints placed on us, particularly in pandemic conditions. These constraints can range from public health mandates to more subtle social or political pressures. The pandemic invites us to consider these pressures, exploring what happens when death (and mourning) become politicized.
Begun in May 2020, the Rituals in the Making project comprises three studies (outlined below), and will continue through May 2025. It also includes two on-going research initiatives that cut across all three studies: In America: Remember, and the Culture Keepers: African American Funeral Directors in the Era of COVID.
The first study, Funerary Practices, Pandemic Confinement, and the Implications for COVID-19 Transmission (2020-2021), was funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-2029839). We observed rituals change as the virus spread through its first, second, and third waves across the US, and examined how mourners and death care workers sought to tend to the dead and console the living despite restrictions on public gathering.
The second study, Death in an Age of Misinformation (2021-2022), was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics (IDDP). The project involved two research activities: first, we analyzed the COVID-19 transmission and prevention “misinformation” landscape from March 2020 to May 2022, focusing specifically on public discourse around death rates and vaccination; second, we studied how individuals and communities used memorials and other forms of remembrance to counter misinformation by making tangible the scale of loss, and the social and emotional weight, of COVID-19 deaths.
The third study, Memorialization, Contested Knowledge, and the Sociopsychological Impacts of Disinformation in the Context of COVID-19 (2022-2025), also funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-2148920), is a 36-month project that builds on the findings of the IDDP study to examine memorialization and experiences of incomplete mourning amid debates over knowledge and expertise. We focus on how—in the context of the pandemic—activism, advocacy, and resistance become central to the experience of mourning, and how ritual is used in efforts and expressions of accountability. The study explores the social life and meaning of COVID-19, including discourses of “misinformation” and structural inequalities, as they play out not only in large public spheres but also in a range of contexts, including funeral homes, cemeteries, grief counseling sessions, virtual commemorations, and social media posts.