Posted by: Tony Carson | 26 August, 2007

Public mourning: conspicuous compassion

Those teddy bears piling up among the clutter, the home-made cards affixed to a wall, the wilting mound of flowers, the assorted ribbons streaming in the breeze, the people straining against the barricades,  — the look of contemporary mourning.

This article in the Toronto Star entitled The modern way of mourning goes a long way in explaining how we grieve today. Some excerpts:

The new (mourning) narrative didn’t begin with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 10 years ago this month. But she certainly defined it, with the endless images of flowers piled knee-deep outside Buckingham Palace and weepy-eyed British women and men lining up for days to sign their names to a book of condolences — while the Royal Family looked askance. “This is a family funeral,” the Queen declares to prime minister Tony Blair in the Oscar-nominated movie, not “a fairground attraction.” Her attitude is clearly an anachronism.

In a culture drifting away from the church and the confines of tradition, laypeople — and particularly teenagers — are rewriting the script for how we say our final farewells. We choose cremation over burial. We hire “funeral celebrants” to arrange everything from special poetry to servings of a loved one’s favourite ice cream, or to release balloons at the service. And we shamelessly spill our guts — and sometimes gruesome details — online for public consumption.

Technology makes for some unusual, and ghoulish, memorials: For $35,000 (U.S.), a British art company reportedly offers to mix a loved one’s DNA with a tree; a movie on Dutch TV raised the idea of webcams in coffins (“necrocams”); and bereaved parents on YouTube posted a montage of their premature, stillborn son, called “Our Baby Joe.”

Funeral practices change very suddenly, strongly subject as they are to cultural context. The Victorian practice of parading coffins through the streets with ostentatious ceremony ended when the casualties of the First World War made it seem distasteful. Families abandoned the tradition of home wakes once funeral directors arrived in town. Our unofficial gestures, once spontaneous, have become expected: You only have to Google the name of a teenager tragically killed to find a website in his or her honour. Other sites provide helpful directions on how to host a candlelight vigil, including reminders to contact the media.

In his short book Conspicuous Compassion, British writer Patrick West suggests harshly that public displays are often more about showing people that we care than they are about genuine emotion. “We are given to ostentatious displays of empathy to a degree hitherto unknown,” he writes.

This is a sign, to his thinking, of our broken social bonds, our desire for community, however superficial. He is a critic of lapel ribbons meant to advertise that the wearer’s heart is in the right place, even if no real action or donation backs it up. “It is about feeling good, not doing good,” he continues, “and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.”

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist who studies resiliency at Columbia University, suggests that most people recover from a traumatic event on their own, with the help of friends. He cites a study of survivors sent to hospital after a car accident: The ones given an hour of crisis counselling that required them to rehash the events were more likely to be depressed and less likely to be driving and reported more pain three years later.

“We don’t think about life and death very often in our culture,” he says. “We keep it at bay. So when it does strike, we don’t have very useful practices for dealing with it.”

After the April shootings at Virginia Tech, Dr. Bonanno says, he was asked to speak at a candlelight vigil on his New York campus. He declined. “What would I say? ‘Go home’? I don’t see any point in holding memorials for strangers.”

At the same time, he conceded, these reactions are driven by the media. “If you say, ‘Here’s a bad thing that happened — look, look,’ then everybody looks.”

This is a very interesting article about a dynamic social phenomenon driven by youth and the media.


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