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Celebrating death in a pandemic: Hallowe’en under lockdown

paulinegarvey5 November 2020

Photo by Pauline Garvey

How to celebrate death in the context of a global pandemic? Every year in Ireland, Hallowe’en is celebrated on 31st October.  Popular belief ascribes the celebration to pagan Celtic rituals (Samhain) that was later embedded in Christian belief systems to mark ‘All Souls’’ or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’. ‘All Souls Eve’ was traditionally believed to be a liminal time when the distinction between the land of the living and the dead is particularly permeable, and when the spirits of the dead wander amongst the living. Nowadays, children dress up as ghosts, ghouls or witches and go house to house collecting sweets and treats as they go.

But how do you celebrate death in the context of a global pandemic? Hallowe’en is interesting because the Irish ‘do’ death with enthusiasm. Funerals are widely recognised as being particularly important ritual events, the time and place to show support for families of the deceased, and often a whole-village event in rural areas. Many older people avidly followed death notices online, and people expect to go to funerals of friends, neighbours and relatives. At the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, one frequent complaint in the national media related to the prohibition of having more than ten people attend the funerals of family members. However, over the duration of my research, we found that although people attended funerals of family members and friends, they were much more reticent about death. As one woman said to me: ‘we’ve tackled every other taboo, but death remains the last one’.

Unfazed by the nuances of celebrating death in the context of a global pandemic, Dubliners seemed to start preparations with marked enthusiasm and several weeks in advance. From early October, people were dusting off their plastic ghosts and ghouls, fake cobwebs covered garden walls and hedges, fairy lights adorned doorways. Bloody handprints were a popular decorative motif this year, as were over-sized spiders perched on house exteriors.  Just before the festival, the Irish government imposed Level 5 restrictions in order to suppress Covid 19 infections. Level 5 imposes the highest level of restrictions possible, and people were/are confined to 5km distance from their home while visits between households were banned – except in a few exceptional circumstances (see below). On the actual day, and for social distancing purposes, the ’mumming’, or going from house to house, was banned, and households with children had to scramble to create alternative amusements: one household encouraged their children to go from room to room in their own house, while others organised treasure hunts in their garden, or arranged nighttime picnics. Another household put the medieval plague doctor outfit away in preference to staging the bloody remains of a corpse, complete with spaghetti coloured with red dye for guts and egg whites for eyeballs – to put a more upbeat, positive spin on the event, they joked.

The move online, of course, seemed a natural progression, and Dublin City Council urged people to ‘Go virtual for fun: There are plenty of online events that can be enjoyed within the confines of home!’[i] and provided online events such as The Big Scream, a free-of-charge event on Zoom. Widely advertised too was the teaming of Dublin City Council and the Irish tourist board (Failte Ireland) to celebrate the Irish author of Dracula in their launch of the Bram Stoker Festival, complete with online tours of gothic treasures in the National Gallery and ghoulish stories told by comedians and writers.

Examples of Halloween activities this year.

Hallowe’en has long lost any serious associations with death and is now a children’s festival. Here though, older adults who had cocooned during the first lockdown last March have been offered some respite with government recommendations that single-occupant households or would-be cocooners create ‘support bubbles’ with one other household. This means that would-be cocooners are not necessarily so isolated but can nominate one other household they can see socially, while also observing level 5 restrictions. For grandparents, this allows some measure of social interaction and an opportunity to liberally distribute sweets to grandchildren, within the confines of the restrictions – and without being told off by parents.

[i] Sweeney, Tanya 30/10/20 ‘Lockdown Halloween: the safe way to have grisly fun’

The Irish Times, Oct 30, 2020.

Anthropology in times of COVID-19. Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile

Alfonso Otaegui30 September 2020

This post can also be read in Spanish.

Figure 1. Don Francisco (78) reporting on the empty streets of Santiago

The COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented event due to its scale, to the extent that the French anthropologist Philippe Descola describes it as being, in certain respects, a ‘total social fact’ at a global level (Truong, 2020). This phenomenon, due to its both global and local nature, and its imposing urgency is an invitation for anthropologists to study it. However, the characteristics of the pandemic impose certain methodological challenges. How do we account for local experiences of the pandemic from an ethnographic perspective when both the researchers and the participants must comply with social isolation?

The Chilean government declared a state of catastrophe on March the 18th, 2020, imposing a strict lockdown in various areas of the country. Together with a team of four researchers from the Catholic University of Chile (1), we then started wondering –through Zoom meetings, of course– how we could study the experience of the pandemic in Chile. By then, the lockdown had just begun in the Metropolitan Region, and we were unaware that it would last at least four months in its strictest phase. We decided to try a participatory methodology and invite people we knew from previous research projects, and who had smartphones, to collaborate. This is how the ‘Auto-ethnographies of the pandemic in Chile’ project started. Week by week, we asked participants to send us audio messages, videos, photos of their experiences and their impressions of the pandemic – and its corollary, the national lockdown. In addition, we regularly called them and did informal interviews through Zoom or WhatsApp. This three-month project was intended to be a sort of guided auto-ethnography, but it was only so at first.

The participants come from different areas of this vast country: a Mapuche family from the Araucanía region, a family from the rural area of ​​Chiloé, and others from urban areas. In my case, I worked with three families in Santiago: two older adults, former students of my smartphone workshops, and a Peruvian worker that I knew from my previous fieldwork among migrants.

Over time, the participants developed different styles of communication when sharing their experiences. Directed auto-ethnographies mutated into travel logs of sorts. For Joaquín, a migrant who lost his job at the beginning of the lockdown, and whose experience is a testimony to the job insecurity exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, the auto-ethnography gradually became a shared personal diary, almost with the intimacy of confession. Anthropologist Daniel Miller recounted a very similar case in his tutorial on conducting ethnography during social isolation.

Figure 2. Communal meal during lockdown. ‘Here we are, making a communal meal to eat as a group, as everything has got too expensive. Now, more than ever, all unemployed, all united’.

Francisco, a 78-year-old widower who lives alone, developed two channels of communication over time. There was, on the one hand, the ‘official’ channel, through which he would send audio and video messages, and do the interviews as expected. On the other hand, there was the ‘unofficial’ channel: in personal conversations off the record, Francisco discussed with me what he planned to say in the messages since he was very wary about the image of him that such messages could elicit. The lockdown, for Francisco, was a gradual reduction of his everyday spaces of sociality.

Muriel, a 73-year-old woman, gradually became more discouraged as the weeks went by and her usual social activities were suspended. For her, the auto-ethnography was an opportunity to organise her feelings and thoughts, a space for conscious reflection. In a style opposite to the other two, Muriel would first focus on reflection every week, and then she would organise her ideas, write a rough draft on paper, and then read them in her messages. Her stories show the descriptive vocation of the chronicler, combined with major reflections about these dystopian times. In the first weeks of her story, the pandemic is the main figure, occupying the entire stage. Over time, it shifts into the background and the difficulties of being confined, the tension with other people in the house, boredom and uncertainty come to the fore.

You can listen to one of Muriel’s voice messages below:

 

The following is a translation of Muriel’s voice message: It feels like I am living in a new world, full of risks and uncertainties. As if everything I had learned was neither real nor valid. That is the most difficult thing for me. Not the confinement, but not knowing how life will go on. (translated by Alfonso Otaegui)

After three months of staying in continuous contact with these families, and one month of analysis, we want to bring these experiences to a wider audience. Perhaps such stories may inspire in the audience a sensitivity to the experiences of others. Such sensitivity is the basis for solidarity that, according to philosopher Richard Rorty, “has to be constructed out of little pieces” (1989: 94). To do so we partnered with the Visual Anthropology Lab of the university, to put together a multimedia website that would communicate such rich experiences. We may use illustrations, like fellow ASSA team member Laura Haapio-Kirk did, or perhaps develop short stories constructed around words and sounds.

Despite the various difficulties, in all the stories there are glimpses of hope. Perhaps Joaquín’s is the most illustrative. This migrant worker, whose family was stranded in Lima, was always longing for his loved ones during his pilgrimage from one precarious job to the next. He got closer to his young son through Whatsapp. With lockdown enforced in both countries, Joaquín helped him do his homework through a video call. It was during these strange times that his son, 4.000 km away, learned how to write. In a Zoom conversation, Joaquín shared with me the following, visibly moved: “his first text message was ‘Dad, I love you’.

Notes

  1. The team is formed by Jaime Coquelet (CIIR-UC), Rosario Palacios (CIIR-UC), Iniley Iturriaga Vilches (UC), and Alfonso Otaegui (CIIR-UC).

References

Truong, N. (May 22, 2020). ‘Philippe Descola : « Nous sommes devenus des virus pour la planète »’. Le Monde. Retrieved from https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2020/05/20/philippe-descola-nous-sommes-devenus-des-virus-pour-la-planete_6040207_3232.html

Rorty, R. 1989. Contingency, irony, and solidarity. Cambridge University Press.