Pandemic Rituals

by Anitra Pavlico

As we continue to distance ourselves from others in the midst of the new coronavirus pandemic, we hear about other people’s new rituals and routines as we formulate our own. As each day to be spent at home stretches (looms) ahead of us when we awake in the morning, rituals give the day shape, symmetry, a framework. What significance do these new rituals have for us individually and as a society? What did the old rituals mean? What if we were to take an anthropological approach to our own predicament?

Health experts are now saying that the time-honored greeting in the West, the handshake, should be reexamined. Anthony Fauci says: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you.” While the origins are uncertain, people from ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia to ancient Greece were depicted as shaking or displaying open hands as a sign of trust thousands of years ago. People would show their empty right hand to demonstrate that they were not carrying a weapon and that they had amicable intentions. While the original motivation for showing your empty hand might have faded, the handshake is still a potent signal of willingness to cooperate and of trustworthiness. Yet as a deadly virus circulates, the handshake seems insensible. Some health experts have pointed to Japan, which has done much better than other nations in this pandemic, as a case in point: hand-shaking is not common there, and the society in general highly prizes cleanliness, with people routinely wearing a face mask even if they only have a common cold. It is hard to imagine the handshake going away, but the longer the pandemic lingers, the more likely that something else will enter the mainstream to take its place. The key is to develop ways to refuse a handshake without offending or embarrassing the other party. These social niceties do more to keep society functioning than COVID-19 has done, so far, to threaten its underpinnings.

We have also read heartbreaking stories about people who have lost loved ones, whether to the virus or to something else, who cannot grieve with other people. Funeral homes have had to get on the Zoom bandwagon, as a funeral becomes more like a video conference call with your team at work. This is a temporary new ritual, a sad, makeshift proceeding, that is nonetheless better than not marking the passing of the individual in any ritualistic way at all. No one has said we should grieve this way from now on, but it is simply how it is done in a time of social distancing. There is no substitute for a tearful hug in person.

Another pandemic-specific ritual is the eight p.m. “howlto celebrate healthcare workers and to let out the stress and aggravation of being stuck indoors. Much more common in my part of the country is the nightly round of applause for healthcare workers. There have been several car parades accompanied by horn-honking in my car-dependent suburb.

People working at home instead of in their usual workplace have also instituted new rituals–not just new habits–as they take a moment at the beginning of a video meeting to check in on each other’s families, or leave chat rooms open for employees who feel isolated or want to chat with someone serendipitously, as they would have at the office. Some employers have started mindfulness programs to help employees suffering from pandemic-related stress. Casper ter Kuile, author of “The Power of Ritual” and fellow at Harvard Divinity School, writes that ritual exists “to help us remember that things are simply real. Ritual focuses our attention on the here and now and opens our awareness to those others around us . . . ritual moments create structure and meaning, and give form to the stuff of our days.”  Rituals can promote mindfulness without the restlessness, as we focus on going through the motions of the ritual itself instead of on sitting still or clearing our minds.


American anthropologist Clifford Geertz was a pioneer in symbolic anthropology, which studied cultural symbols to determine the meaning of culture as a whole for the people living in it. For Geertz, culture, and religion within it, contain symbols that embody both worldview and ethos. Worldview symbols are “models of” reality as we see it: a handshake is a symbol of goodwill and trust. Symbols for ethos are “models for” how to live: speed limit signs tell us how fast we can safely drive. For Geertz, rituals contain both “models of” and “models for,” worldview and ethos. As Nicholas Herriman describes it, rituals are “symbols in action.” [1] Symbols are the building blocks of rituals; they are what come together and collide and create the ritualistic experience. 

In his essay “On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding,” Geertz describes how the groundbreaking anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski–the first person to do ethnographic research in the field–shocked readers from the grave when his widow published his memoir, A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Malinowski exploded the myth that the field-worker had to be a paragon of empathy and had to achieve communion with the people he studied. Geertz agreed: trying to understand a different culture is more like “grasping a proverb [or] catching an allusion” than achieving an empathic connection where you feel you are a member of that culture as well. Instead, Geertz wrote:

I have tried to arrive at this most intimate of notions [of determining how the people define themselves as persons] not by imagining myself as someone else–a rice peasant or a tribal sheikh, and then seeing what I thought–but by searching out and analyzing the symbolic forms–words, images, institutions, behaviors–in terms of which, in each place, people actually represent themselves to themselves and to one another.

With symbolic anthropology, the field became less of a science and more of a humanistic mode of interpretation. According to this approach, we can draw on psychology, history, and even literature to study symbolic action within culture.

Geertz was heavily influenced by Émile Durkheim, who argued that rules of ritual are “social facts” that reflect the ways society maintains its structure and solidarity. Taking a functional approach to sociology and anthropology, Durkheim saw ritual as an attempt to create and maintain a particular culture. Symbols behind the rituals unify people into moral communities by serving as a focus, getting people together, creating a certain mood conducive to worship–and, as Durkheim famously held, enabling people to worship society itself. Humans’ high degree of helplessness compared to other animals has instilled in us a strong sense of interdependence on our immediate community. We tend to pursue rituals that strengthen the bonds between us and our neighbors, which strengthens society as a whole.


Despite the enormous size of the U.S., there do exist national pursuits and rituals that cut across state lines and time zones. We love getting in the car and going someplace. We love our streaming video services and binge-watching. We unite around calendar cycles that center on the school year, holidays, and vacations. Our days are regimented as we thrive on busy-ness: errands, work, socializing, socializing at work, working while socializing. The symbols are typically the car, the mall, the grocery store, the TV, the smartphone, the computer, coffee. Rituals, the symbols in action, typically involve connecting with other people, in person. That is why so many of us are bereft right now and feel so isolated. Giving lie to the worries in recent years about how we are living our lives online, and not seeing our friends and family in person anymore, is the fact that we are losing our minds now that we can’t see our friends and family in person. It is a fundamental need that never went away. We like leaving the house or apartment and going where other people are, even if we don’t know them. And now, there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. There is a deep desire to go out to stores and gather goods. The stores are closed, we’ve lost our jobs, there is nothing to gather and no money to do it with. We miss being around people. This is why we have had to come up with new rituals.

The new rituals that have arisen, both on an individual basis as people at home reshape their days, and on a societal basis and people find ways to bridge the social distancing, tell a story about us. As we feel insecure and fearful, we create symbols to fuel the rituals. The symbol for 2020 may be the face mask. On its own, it signifies unease and distance. As we have taken hold of the symbol and made it suit our purposes–societal connectedness and therefore survival–the mask has become a vehicle for and symbol of altruism as generous individuals have given their time and labor to make masks for those who need them. Per Durkheim and Geertz, new rituals of altruism not only describe the way we see ourselves, the “model of” reality, but portray aspirations to an ethos, the “model for” living, that helps us survive and thrive as a society.



[1] Herriman apparently borrows the term from the influential book of the same name by British archeologist Ian Hodder. Herriman, who is based at La Trobe University in Melbourne, offers a number of helpful lectures on Geertz, Durkheim, and others on YouTube.