Ritual and the Secular Day of the Dead

Photo by Sam Brand on Unsplash

As more and more people are abandoning their religious upbringing, many still want to celebrate certain cherished cultural traditions. This is why the upcoming Secular Day of the Dead was created as a redesign of Hispanic traditions and rituals that celebrate our one and only life, legacies, and cultural heritage. To nontheists, our legacies are our afterlife.

“Ritual” indicates a formal repetitive behavior before or during some task considered important by the actor, and it usually includes actions not directly relevant to nor causal of the intended outcome. Its best-known manifestations are in religious contexts when the extraneous actions have symbolic meaning, and by far the greatest number of studies of ritual are analyses of the practice of religion. However, ritualistic behavior is evident in our daily lives.

Most people have morning routines. Following them precisely is important and helps one to feel complete and confident; omitting some part of the routine can lessen those feelings. Such routines are especially important for people embarking on busy work schedules with critical outcomes. The query, “Did you get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?” is a reaction to a friend’s unusually disorganized or grumpy behavior, suggesting that some violation of one’s morning ritual is to blame.

Ritualized behavior seems universal, and it has been suggested that it’s rooted in our evolutionary biology. An experiment by psychologists Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten (Animal Cognition 8:164-181, 2005) of the University of St. Andrews, UK, showed that, compared to chimpanzees, children aged three to four preferred a series of actions with many irrelevant movements to acquire a treat, even when they could see that the irrelevant steps could be by-passed. In terms of adaptive function, such ritual may help to ensure caretaking in critical tasks. It certainly gives people a sense of control and confidence in an impersonal and confusing world. Anthropologists and psychologists who have examined the issue agree that ritual promotes sociality, cooperation, and a sense of belonging—all critical to human success.

Ceremonies marking major transitions in the human life cycle—birth, puberty, and death—are certainly forms of ritual, as are celebrations of other important transitions like marriage, parenthood, and retirement. Coined as “rites of passage” by French/Dutch sociologist and folklorist Arnold van Gennep in his classic work, Les rites de passage (1909), some of these transitions are clearly biological, but all mark the individual’s passage from one culturally recognized status to another. Van Gennep said that each has three parts: separation from the previous status; transition, in which one is prepared for entry into the next status; and incorporation, when the subject is fully received in the new status. Van Gennep famously gave the term “liminal” to the status of the subject in the transition stage: it is “betwixt and between,” having left its previous status but not yet having entered the next.

Of course, children are born and must be cared for, and people die and their corpses must be disposed of, all the time; but some ceremonies collectively marking such events may be held at conceptualized interstices between seasons. Boys and girls who have entered adolescence within some months of each other are frequently ushered into adulthood together, often in the spring or summer—periods of birth and growth. And ceremonies marking the passage of the year’s deceased souls from the realm of the living to the other world are often held at the end of a year.

In agricultural societies people typically conceptualize the cycle of a year in symbolic terms corresponding to the human life cycle: birth (planting), growth, and death (harvest); the winter or dry season is a period of regeneration preparatory to the new birth. In the Christian calendar Easter marks birth (or rebirth) and the festivals of All Saints and All Souls mark death. Either point can mark the beginning of a new year.

The Hispanic holiday known in English as the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos), features rituals commemorating the deceased members of a community; in this aspect it has parallels throughout the world. Pre-Columbian Mexicans celebrated Día de los Muertos in the springtime. During Christianization the celebration was incorporated into the three-day observance of All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls, October 31 through November 2. The souls of persons who died the previous year are imagined to be in a liminal state until they are symbolically freed and sent off to the other world by the rituals performed by their descendants. On subsequent Days of the Dead people believe that the ancestral souls may return to help celebrate the newcomers to their realm.

In many cultures, especially in eastern Asia, West Africa, and Oceania, ancestors are honored members of the family. Clearly, supernatural belief is not necessary here; agnostics and atheists celebrate their ancestors’ birthdays and participate in collective remembrances like the American Veterans Day and Memorial Day, and the birthdays of certain cultural heroes. In that vein nonbelievers can share in the elaborate and joyous commemorative ceremonies of Día de los Muertos without religion or superstitions. On Sunday, November 1, 2020, the first virtual Secular Day of the Dead/Día de los Muertos Secular will take place online.

Margaret Downey, founder of The Freethought Society and a co-founder of the Secular Day of the Dead, describes the festival for us:

Secular Day of the Dead/ Día de los Muertos Secular is a celebration of life. Nontheist Hispanics view the Secular Day of the Dead as a perfect way to remember the legacy of dead loved ones in a way that does not require prayer, church, or religious dogma.

Downey, who in the past five years has helped organize in-person Secular Day of the Dead events in San Diego and Los Angeles, California, notes that the event welcomes “those nontheist Hispanics who hope to maintain family celebrations that are not forcing them to be hypocritical” and that it can also be a beautiful and rewarding event “for everyone who loves life and cares about honoring a dead love one.”

The 2020 Secular Day of the Dead will be presented with special attention to Spanish-speaking participants with the use of subtitles along with a devoted Spanish and English breakout room for the keynote speaker and honoring ceremony portions of the program. The event is co-sponsored by The Freethought Society, Hispanic American Freethinkers, American Atheists, Center for Inquiry, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Co-sponsors and organizers will each light a candle to honor a “secular saint” of historic significance during the welcome. FFRF’s Dan Barker will present “Adios a Dios” (a journey story presentation), while actors John de Lancie and John Davidson, writer Sasha Sagan, and sculptor Zenos Frudakis have each reserved honoring ceremony slots.

After the reserved speaking spots conclude, the Zoom spotlighting function will be available for anyone who would like to participate. The screen-share function will be enabled so that speakers can display photos of the person being honored. Reserve a three-to-five-minute time slot to celebrate the life of a dead loved one through the following email address: SecularDayoftheDead@FtSociety.org.

Prizes will be awarded and mailed to participants whom the co-sponsors determine to have the best Secular Day of the Dead themed clothing, face painting, face mask, hair adornment, and space/room decor. Zoom login information is available only to those who pre-register. Register today and experience a new secular ritual for yourself!