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.
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.