May 22, 2019 | 66° F

Seminar honors journalists with Day of the Dead altar

Bratich says ritual communication can bring people together

Photo by Courtsey of Alyse Mattioli |

As a part of the Byrne First-Year Seminar “Ritual Communication in Day of the Dead Celebrations,” Professor Regina Marchi and her class set up an altar with photos of deceased journalists from U.S. history at the School of Communication and Information on the College Avenue campus.

Flowers, skulls and candles surrounded pictures of deceased journalists to honor the contributions they have made to American democracy.

A small altar was stationed Monday to Wednesday in the School of Communication and Information on the College Avenue campus by students in the Byrne Seminar “Ritual Communication in Day of the Dead Celebrations,” to signify how different forms of communication can be relayed to others.

Regina Marchi, professor in the department of Journalism and Media Studies who teaches the seminar, said the holiday Day of the Dead or El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated during Nov. 1 and 2 throughout the Latin American regions, in which people use rituals to honor deceased ancestors.

“There were very specific rituals for remembering deceased ancestors and that involved creating alters to place food on the altars, flowers, candles or fire,” she said. “It’s basically a way to remember them and get their blessings for the harvest for the health of the community.”

She said the class looked at the different ways the rituals’ meanings have changed from the Latin American context to the United States.

Over the past 40 years, the celebration grew as Latinos who live in the United States also began to participate.

The holiday today involves going to church for mass and the cemetery for celebrants in the United States, unlike people in indigenous communities who are connected to the traditional altar building.

“[The U.S. has] a more collective nature where you see altars that are honoring groups of people that have died because of … social injustice. Sometimes you see alters honoring young people killed in gang violence or young people lost to drugs and alcohol abuse,” she said.

Jack Bratich, chair of the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, said the Day of the Dead has layers of meaning, in which some people show grief for a loved one while others build shrines to show respect.

He said everything people say or do has multiple meanings that can allow people to come together.

“People feel close to celebrities in their lives when celebrities die — people often think about rituals like with Michael Jackson, people went out into the streets and performed his songs and put together shrines,” he said.

The altar the seminar assembled included a diverse background of journalists from all different time periods from American history, including Walter Cronkite, Mark Twain, Nellie Bly, Edward Murrow and Margaret Fuller, Marchi said.

“In democracy you have to have a government by the people for the people and if people can’t be educated about the issues and know what’s going on . . . then it’s hard to have a democratic country.”

Altars in the United States have taken on a more political meaning from what was once a personal and religious ritual to a more public, secular, and cultural meaning.  

“That’s what we have here ... the Byrne seminar course is just really teaching the students about the ritual and about how rituals can communicate in ways that are really very diverse from spiritual to social to political to cultural,” she said.

Communication is not only about sending something but also being together, Bratich said, which is why there is ritual communication.

“It’s the notion that communication is a process that brings people together sometimes very temporarily,” he said.

Bratich said rituals could involve political reactions because people do not always die from natural causes, but rather die from lack of healthcare or from war.

“We live in a age of media images such that people will gather around those kinds of things,” he said.

By Yashmin Patel

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