When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Mourning sickness

Rosie Boycott, former editor of The Independent, made a TV programme about false grief for Channel Five, shown last week. I was practically cheering when I saw it. In 2002 a Welsh academic, Dr James Thomas, claimed that 'the majority did not mourn for Diana', as the conclusion to his research. Think-tank Civitas published a report in February 2004, claiming that a vocal minority indulge in 'recreational mourning'. It's all very unhealthy. It's also very annoying, because the media, including the BBC, will insist on referring to 'a nation in mourning', or 'a city in mourning', such as when Iraq hostage Ken Bigley was murdered, whenever there's been a tragedy like this. Excuse me - but who asked the 'nation' or the 'city' whether we really were in mourning for someone we never knew? One particularly shocking result of the hysteria over Diana's death was the huge amount of money spent on flowers by members of the public, left to rot in the streets, together with soggy teddy bears and pathetic love notes. More than a million bouquets were left at Kensington Palace, her home. Multiply that by the cost of an average bouquet, and you can see that London florists made a lot of money around the time of the funeral. Imagine how that money could have been used by some cash-strapped charitable organisations, including the ones that Diana supported, such for landmine victims, or AIDS patients.

On the day of Princess Diana's funeral I conducted a wedding ceremony in a small hotel in Suffolk. The couple had been expected to cancel their wedding by some of their silliest friends, although the arrangements had been made for months. They asked me if I thought they should, as they didn't want to appear heartless and uncaring, which they emphatically were not. I said no, they should go ahead. It was strange, driving to the venue, because the roads were so quiet. Hotel guests were glued to the telly in the lounge next door to the wedding room, watching the funeral. They cast disapproving glances in our direction as we trooped through to the reception in the garden. Bloomin' cheek! Only weeks before, the tabloid press had been depicting Diana as a floozy, out gallivanting with her 'boyfriend', the Fayed playboy. Now they were making out she was some sort of saint.

A year after the death, I did a Thought for the Day on local radio, as follows:
I didn't mourn the death of Diana, nor did many other people. How could we? It was all such a waste, and very sad for her family, but we didn't know her. Grief is personal.

Throughout history, humankind has mourned its dead in a variety of ways in accord with the customs of the community. It's different now. Things are less clear. The media, especially television, is a huge influence. There is a lot of confusion. People seem to want to be told what to do, as though there's an etiquette of mourning. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many people behaved the way they did a year ago, when crowds lined the streets of London around the palaces and along the route of the funeral procession. Maybe for a few hours those people felt a sense of community, otherwise missing from their lives.

A year ago I was on Radio Suffolk talking about the news of Diana's death with Rachel (the presenter). I said that many people seemed to have lost a sense of proportion. I saw Rachel wince, anticipating a backlash from enraged listeners, but the only calls we had were from people who said they agreed with me but hadn't liked to say so. I resented the way that those of us who didn't identify with the 'we' the commentators kept talking about were discouraged from saying anything at all, even from saying that we felt it was all a bit excessive. Too many people made a virtue out of weeping for Diana. Weeping for her was something you did or didn't do, but no one should have been made to feel that if they had no tears they should apologise for it.

Grief, the genuine article, affects everyone differently. Some go quiet. Some weep. Some get angry. Some want to be alone. Some want to be with others. Some do all these things. The situation changes daily. Grief affects us emotionally and physically. Some people, bereaved for the first time, are shocked by how little control they have over it. If you loved someone, even if you didn't always like him or her, grief is the very natural consequence of losing them. And it's personal - —very, very personal.

So if you feel there must be something wrong with you because you haven’t been swept away on a tide of popular emotion, I can assure you there isn't. Many other people feel like you, but just don't like to say so. As Shakespeare wrote:

... to thine own self be true,
And it must follow as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
25 October - update

A Story from the Telegraph:
A passer-by saw what he or she thought was a dead human foetus in a Liverpool alleyway, and after a few days the area was cluttered with the usual soggy teddy bears, dead flowers and mawkish messages. It turned out to be a dead chicken, the police said yesterday, not a human being.