Forward Thinking Blog Challenge: Mourning Death Collectively
Daniel Fincke poses a number of questions about how we mourn, and particularly, how we mourn collectively. When I read his fascinating prompt, I was reminded immediately of a lovely poem that appeared on Andrew Sullivan’s blog recently, that begins like this:

“Fiction” by Mark Strand:

I think of the innocent lives
Of people in novels who know they’ll die
But not that the novel will end. How different they are
From us.

This poem seems particularly apt, because in some ways I think it misses the point. You see, I believe that we are, in an important sense, just like those people in novels. We are within the narrative of our own lives. In fact, we are the narrative of our lives.

I do not mean this metaphorically. I mean to say that selfhood — that quintessentially human experience of being a unique, enduring individual — is the output of a suite of brain modules that reduce the unremitting, overwhelming stream of sensation, thoughts and interpretations into a linear series of events organized along a chain of causes and effects… or in other words, into a narrative. I don’t have a story; rather, I am a story, or at least a series of drafts of a story. (I guess it’s not a fictional story, or at least not wholly fictional. Some parts are likely truer than others, but I probably can’t tell which are which.)

A “good” story needs to make sense. That’s the point of all our storifying, really. The future is terrifyingly unpredictable, but by understanding the past, we hope to be prepared. At the same time, a good story should not be too predictable, because that’s boring. And so, ideally, we want a story that is full of interest and suspense, but which finally — at the moment of death — makes sense.

Think about the great death scenes in history. Think of Jesus suffering on the cross, Buddha reclining beneath the sal tree, Socrates gesturing with one hand while, in the other, he holds aloft the cup of poison. Their deaths condensed all the details of those men’s lives into a single, comprehensible and indelibly memorable moment. This wrap-up, this instant of perfect intelligibility is what we long for, I think, for ourselves and for everyone we care about. 

Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to shape our ends. There are those who expire in ripe old age, mentally and socially sharp until the end. And there are those who pass on “after a long battle” with some illness or trauma. In such cases, the people who care about us are saddened, but somehow satisfied. 

But of course many of us are taken unawares, picked off by senseless (what a telling adjective!) accident or violence, or perhaps carried away by some unexpected and catastrophic disease. 

I think of my brother-in-law, Lee. In his mid-40s he was hospitalized for a serious illness and, though we all expected him to recover, his story ended within the week. It was an enormous shock to those of us who loved him.

Why is this? Why do some deaths leave us saddened, but at peace, while others shake our worlds? I believe it’s all about stories, theirs and ours. By the mechanism called “theory of mind”, we create internal versions of the self-story of each person we care about. We, as it were, host their selves alongside our own central story. A senseless story — a story which ends without resolution — threatens to breach the very concept of self.

Now various religions try to repair this breach by extending the narrative of the departed one into some kind of life after death. For many people, this is a comfort, but I am not one of them. The claims of eternal life in heaven (or elsewhere, of course) seemed dubious even to my child self. I have never taken comfort from the rituals of a religious funeral, though I have sometimes done my best to give comfort in that setting. Instead, for me, the healing has always come from the party afterward.

Let me describe Lee’s farewell party. About a hundred people showed up. We, the family, decorated the room with pictures of Lee, especially of Lee with ourselves and with friends. There was food and alcohol and laughter, and most of all, there was storytelling. One person stood up with tears in his eyes and told a story that sent the room into helpless laughter. Another person simply expressed what Lee meant to her. The thread of his life was embellished in a hundred ways. Besides stories, there were other offerings: a song, a beautiful piece of needlework, a set of hand-made ginger-jar urns for the family members who would keep some of Lee’s ashes. Working together, we at the party re-formed Lee’s life-story. We worked as co-creators to give that story form, and so we redeemed it. And so we redeemed, at the very same time, our selves.

When a public figure dies, we can suffer a similar breach in our internal stories. It’s easy to tell when a particular death (or group of deaths) has made such a breach: just look for the outpourings of offerings. Think of the flowers and candles left outside Kensington Palace for Princess Diana, or the teddy bears lined up in Newtown, Connecticut. Such offerings are an effort at giving and receiving comfort by people caught, as it were, in the nimbus of a public death. The family and close friends of the princess and the murdered children had their needs, but so did a great mass of people who, even if they had never met the lost ones, felt compelled to help redeem their life stories. 

We need to anticipate such offerings and prepare spaces (virtual and physical) to accommodate them. And in many cases, we may need curators to guide the expression of public mourning. After all, not all public figures are universally loved. Some of the “offerings” made at the death of a controversial figure need to be culled from the view of the surviving family and friends. Other offerings — particularly moving or artistically beautiful — ought to be made prominent, so that they offer comfort and inspire others who wish to make an offering. A talented curator would be both a skilled editor and a sort of communal healer.

Writing this, it occurs to me that the role I’ve called a curator has been anticipated to some degree in Orson Scott Card’s excellent book, Speaker for the Dead. However, in Card’s twentieth-century imagination, only a single specialist gets to discover and offer the story of the deceased. Card did not anticipate our crowd-sourced world, in which the multitude can, with a little adroit guidance, create and then mesh together their own healing narratives. 

Come to think, most funeral rites follow the old model in which a specialist is given right of rank to tell the story of the lost person’s past and future. Maybe that, too will change in our new crowd-sourced world. Maybe religious leaders will learn to be more curatorial.