Posted by: Tony Carson | 26 August, 2007

Mourning Diana as social obligation: cringe-worthy

If you felt a little queazy about the public display of grief when Diana died 10 years ago, you are not alone. In fact, you are in the vast majority. It just didn’t seem like it. Still doesn’t.

But you were.

Debunking U.K.’s `cringe-worthy’ grief over Diana is a fascinating article in the Toronto Star that might explain  a lot of your feels of the time.

The disconnect between what was shown and what really was happening is the subject of a trove of research by a handful of British academics, including Cardiff University Professor James Thomas, who debunks the myth of collective mourning with some interesting viewing statistics.

Four million Britons were watching when BBC One aired an evening tribute to Diana Spencer, Thomas reveals in his book Diana’s Mourning: A People’s History. More than three times as many, a massive 14 million, chose instead to watch that night’s instalment of Coronation Street.

“One of the main reasons Britain remains mystified by the reaction to Diana’s death a full 10 years later is that we were divided in our reactions then, as now,” said Jeffrey Richards, professor of history at University of Lancaster.

“I remember being on holiday in Cornwall watching the funeral on TV. The announcer was saying, `The whole nations mourns.’ And I turned my head and looked out the window and there were all sorts of people on the beach, playing with their children.

“It wasn’t the whole nation. It just looked like it. But half of Britain, perhaps cringing a bit, was completely uninvolved. They just kept quiet because they didn’t want to be seen to be going against something that seemed like a popular awakening of some kind.”

Further …

Professor Tony Walters, editor of the 1999 book Mourning for Diana, estimates fewer than 10 per cent of Britons actively participated in the public gestures of mourning.

But people were so “taken in by the media construction” that even the majority who remained detached were under the mistaken impression that “they were in the minority, while the rest of the country was going emotionally bananas.”

Walters, who runs a graduate course in death and society at the University of Bath, said mourning on such a scale “is not particularly surprising.

“The reaction for Diana was actually fairly normal, if you view this through the longer lens of history.

“If you go back 100 years, or to the Middle Ages even, people were required to join in the mourning for the lord of the manor.

“Nobody asked, `Have you gone mad?’ It was a social obligation.”

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