A Few Notes on the Past (and Possible Future) of Public Mourning
A.J. Bermudez on Technology, Community, and Grief
Hugging the northern border of Baja California, a highway called La Rumorosa cuts through the Sierra de Juárez. It’s long been regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous highways. Viewed aerially, the road looks a bit like tinsel tossed carelessly—the ribbonlike curls and switchbacks are staggering. A handful of modern safety measures have been implemented over the years—signage, guardrails, expansion from two precariously narrow lanes—but it’s still iconically treacherous.
La Rumorosa owes its etymological heritage to the Latin rumor, and is named for the whispering sound of the wind as it moves through the canyons. At certain points along the road, one can look down the cliffs and see the clustered exoskeletons of overturned cars. Above these, the road is sporadically riddled with descansos: memorial crosses, inscriptions, sun-blanched silk flowers, toy cars that look uncannily like the real thing fifty meters below. The route is a tortuous archive of individual tragedies and shared mourning, a testament to the extraordinary commonness and uniqueness of loss.
This confluence of universal and particular mourning was top of mind when my partner and I drove La Rumorosaearly in January of 2019, a few months after my mother’s sudden death and a few years after the equally sudden death of my father. Newly orphaned, I felt myself to be a part of something that was massive, dreadful, and unique, but also small, basic, and ultimately as common as the fact of being alive.
A paradox of grief is that it’s an occasion for both community and isolation. While the experience of loss is innately personal, it can also catalyze the desire for connection. As humans (and perhaps not even exclusively as humans, as various animal species have been observed to engage in versions of funerary rites), we are arguably hardwired to mourn communally.
Similarly, writing about grief requires walking a tightwire between isolation and connection. It can ground us just as surely as it can expel us from reality. It can send us down the rigid, narrow barrel of a concretized past, or invite us toward the open, hazy terrain of a conjectural future.
As a writer, I felt both compelled and repulsed by the idea of writing about my grief. It seemed too unwieldy, too prone to grandiosity or oversimplification. I was paralyzed by the fear of getting it wrong, or of repurposing my loss as source material. There’s a school of thought that suffering makes good artists, but it can also make artists who are broken, drained, and extraordinarily sad. Suffering can be edifying and enlightening, but it is, first and foremost, suffering.
When I drove to Mexico, I was in mourning, out to avoid the pervasive cheerfulness of American Christmastime (which I’d begun to take as a personal affront) and actively dodging writing deadlines. I work most frequently as a screenwriter, and just before my mother’s death I’d had a film in development in which the protagonist is buried alive.
It’s not uncommon for my characters to die. I’m frequently told by producers that fewer people should die, due to MPA ratings or budgetary constraints. I’ve never written a script that didn’t have a line item specifically for blood.
For this script, my mother, despite her wry concerns about its impact on her internet search history, had been helping me research how to escape from a coffin. Our conversations on multitools and types of casket wood were not only rife with dramaturgical excellence but also with deep and hilarious bonding. We’d debated the weight distribution of soil and the density of balsam poplar, the odds of survival (or not) under particular circumstances. When the project eventually stalled after my mother’s death, I was relieved. I realized I’d been dreading a broad audience for something that had such a personal meaning. I’d already been in rooms where producers’ ears had pricked up at the mention of personal tragedy. As though loss had made me better and not worse, more interesting and not just more alone.
Over the past two years, isolation has, for many of us, been the paradigm. During this period, we’ve witnessed not only an astonishing loss of life (at the time of this writing, total international deaths from COVID-19 have surpassed six million), but other matters have also been cause for mourning. We’ve witnessed extraordinary police brutality, refugee crises, international conflicts, invasions, displacements, environmental devastation, and the extinction of dozens of species. We’ve also endured less visible losses of time, dignity, opportunity, memory, and health. We’ve been physically more alone and virtually more connected than ever.
In a 2016 Atlantic article titled “The Space Between Mourning and Grief,” Claire Wilmot points out the “important distinction between mourning, a behavior, and grief, an internal emotional experience.” This is indeed a crucial distinction, and there’s no denying that the rapidly evolving nature of technology and human connection has significantly complicated the relationship between mourning and grief. How we experience loss—and how we share it—has changed.
Writing of any kind, but especially in the area of loss, risks glamorizing or trivializing, aggrandizing or minimizing—a risk that is amplified in a sphere as casual and ubiquitous as social media, where publication is immediate and largely unregulated. In the wake of my parents’ deaths, I found my intellectual beliefs about social media confronted daily. Although I didn’t participate much, I’d long argued that no platform for expression is intrinsically damned, that technologies are exactly as good as how they’re put to use. But now, my skin crawled at the thought of strangers “liking” a funeral announcement, nestled between a puppy meme and sports news, without slowing down. Misspelled condolences as “comments” curdled my blood. Worse, seeing posts about loss often triggered a visceral revulsion, an impulse that these memorials were too simple or too florid, somehow both nonchalant and pretentious, the medium too diffuse to support authentic communication.
While I’m sure I wasn’t entirely wrong, the truth was that I wanted the experience of grief for myself. In the absence of real empathy, I preferred solitude. I’d grown up with the idea that there was something noble, heroic even, about grieving alone. Loss was associated with dignity, and dignity entailed keeping it together no matter what. When my father died, my mother grieved so quietly that there were facts about his death—including its cause—that I didn’t know until after hers, when I inherited the key to the lockbox and the stack of official documents inside. A recurring element of family funerals was “It Is Well with My Soul,” a hymn precipitated by the sudden, tragic loss of the composer’s five young children, but which is, at least to a degree, thetically about things being fine.
My tendency toward private mourning wasn’t special, any more than was the experience of loss. In fact, private mourning has been periodically in vogue for centuries. Philip A. Mellor and Chris Shilling, authors of “Modernity, Self-Identity and the Sequestration of Death,” have identified this as “the privatisation of death,” a time of grieving quietly, discreetly, and alone. Like many aspects of history, trends around public mourning seem to follow an undulating sine wave of actions and reactions. While there’s something discomfiting about the notion of mourning “trends,” our behaviors around loss are often driven by social cues, and even by celebrity.
The death of Prince Albert in 1861 in some sense defined the Victorian era. This period, eponymously helmed by the grief-stricken Queen Victoria, so intensively popularized public mourning as to dictate the material for funeral attendants’ hat bands. (Cassell’s Household Guide is a good example of the Levitican guidelines around mourning during this time.) As the result of a complex cocktail of politics, Protestantism, global warfare, and a shift toward the self rather than the social body, much of the twentieth century was marked by restraint with regard to mourning rites. Then, in 1997, a little more a century after the iconic death of Prince Albert, another royal, celebrity death swung the balance back toward a preponderance of elaborate, communal, and very public mourning.
The death of Princess Diana was resonant for reasons that scholars are still trying to unravel. I was quite young at the time, but I remember gathering to raptly observe the funeral on network television. The event is, weirdly, one of my earliest memories, perhaps in part because it was so out of character for my household. We were not preoccupied with the royal family. There were deaths of people we knew to which we didn’t react this strongly. But for some of the estimated 2.5 billion people who watched the funeral—our household included—the event was not only iconic but, on some level, authentically felt.
In “Death and Mourning in Technologically Mediated Culture,” Margaret Gibson writes specifically of Princess Diana’s death, noting that
global media culture creates forms of community and mass cultural identifications beyond the geo-political territory of the nation-state. . . .
. . . Celebrity deaths have increasingly gained significance as the means through which collective and public forms of mourning are ritualised.
She goes on to highlight the idea that “a transference of grief occurred through Diana’s death: it was a vehicle for grieving over other deaths that had not been properly mourned.”
We have, over the past several years (and likely throughout human history), often failed to properly mourn. Relatively anonymous deaths have often gone unobserved while “high-profile” deaths have taken on the queasily spectative dynamics of theater. In social and political movements, individual losses have at times taken on symbolic import (often meaningfully so), but for a handful of people, the loss is personal, not political.
Who qualifies to grieve, and how, is a complex question. In images of celebrity funerals, it’s not uncommon to see immediate family standing solemnly while strangers convulsively weep. There is an odd rift, in these instances, between experiences of grief and mourning.
Writing, like mourning, is a constant negotiation between the political and the personal. No guide can dictate how much or how little to share, how to be both vulnerable and intact, what cost we should allow our authenticity to exact from us, how formal or casual to be.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that “casual” and “casualty” share a linguistic lineage. Writing around loss is at once elevated and messy. The same is true of death: a life, a body, is at once transcendent and vulgar, divine and banal. Writing—and mourning—connect these elements.
Writing is a medium in the truest sense: a connection between what is and what isn’t. At times, this function is strictly imaginative, a string between real and unreal; at others, writing serves as an interlocutor between the living and the dead. Writing shares this connective presence—and its locus between the universal and the particular—with an interesting phenomenon: the roadside memorial.
In the wake of Princess Diana’s death, spectacular memorials sprang up, both at Buckingham Palace and near the site of the crash. The scope of these public memorials was staggering, and the death of Princess Diana—a celebrity figure whom people felt they “knew”—was extraordinarily influential. In a sense, her death reinforced the roadside memorial as a historical touchstone for the democratization of public mourning.
In Private Grief, Public Mourning, authors John Belshaw and Diane Purvey identify the roadside memorial as “not a marginal, quirky epiphenomenon. The roadside shrine is part of a longer and complex story about the meaning of both death and grieving in a particular time and place. It is one more thread in a long tapestry of public exhibitions of grief.”
Remarkably, the tradition of the roadside cross—now primarily associated with vehicular death—predates the invention of the car by centuries. As early as the seventeenth century, wayside crosses served as warnings of dangerous sections of road, the presence of the plague, or as markers of travelers’ gravesites. The tradition carried through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, where it continued to serve multiple meanings, including as one of a panoply of public displays of mourning during the Victorian era. By the mid-twentieth century, roadside crosses had attained a degree of popularity as personal symbols of loss, but state governments had also begun to co-opt the symbol in the form of ad hoc PSAs, posting stark white crosses in safe-driving campaigns. Other state governments, in the years since, have rendered the practice of constructing roadside memorials illegal.
When I was little, my mother—a paragon of wit, composure, and intelligence—wryly expressed her distaste at roadside crosses almost every time we drove past one. She considered them to be both gauche and, if I remember correctly, theologically problematic. She did not believe in ghosts, but joked with my brother and me that, if she were ever killed by a driver in a collision, she’d come back and haunt us if we put one up. When she was eventually killed by a driver in a collision, my brother and I respected the dark joke and observed her wishes, though there’s arguably something equally disturbing about the lack of a marker along that section of road, the persistent invisibility of such a significant event.
To render the invisible visible has long been a project of mourning. Objects like roadside memorials help to locate the dislocated self, to situate a loss through the act of seeing and being seen. Writing functions much the same way. Symbols of individuated grief and public mourning can be found the world over in sculptures, shrines, walls of notes and photographs. They’re in street art and poetry, hymns and pop songs written about one specific person or event but felt and shared by thousands, sometimes across centuries. They’re in works of text, both fiction and non. They’re in novels as well as tweets.Our mourning can (and perhaps must) be governed by authenticity, intentionality, and grace.
In driving home our complex legacy of mourning, Mellor and Shilling point to the pre-modern idea that, “when death occurred, its significance denoted a disruption to the social body more than it did the passing of an individual body. . . . Death meant that society had lost a part of itself, not that an individual had lost society.”
In my eulogy for my mother, I expressed something similar (but by no means original): that the loss of a meaningful life is always a shared loss. Something good is extinguished, and the world suffers.
Writing about loss is always, to a degree, writing about survival. To write from a place of loss, likewise, is an act of resilience. Something or someone is gone. I am here.
The truth is, there’s been a lot to grieve lately, and there will probably be much more. We’ve lost people and things, ideas and possible futures. We’ve experienced loss alone and together. At our best, we’ve found loss to be an occasion for empathy. I am here. We are here.
Writing of the present moment of technological mediation and grief, Claire Wilmot notes, “The really important kind of empathy—the only kind worth practicing—asks us to imagine ourselves into the lives of others, and also, critically, to imagine our limits.”
Misery loves company, but it may be wise to consider the guest list. Empathy can serve as a pivotal compass for whether and how we collectively mourn. In both virtual and non-virtual contexts, a commitment to one another—and to generosity over visibility—is vital. Our mourning can (and perhaps must) be governed by authenticity, intentionality, and grace.
I’ve always liked the idea of writing as motion: always in transit, on its way from someplace to someplace, but situated, irresistibly, in the present. In the context of mourning, this present may be felt as absence, numbness, pain, nostalgia, hope, or a thousand other things. It is rarely efficient, weaving in switchbacks from outward to inward, private to public, personal to universal. But it is on its way to somewhere new. Literarily and literally, we begin in one place and end in another. To write, perhaps, is to invite someone to the experience of empathy, to the present, for part of the journey.
Heading east, La Rumorosa flattens into a jarringly unspectacular straightaway. There’s a gas station and a souvenir shop. There are people around, many of whom are taking advantage of the return of cell service (or their last chance at it before heading west). This is where, as the potential for communication flickered back, after miles of hairpin swerves dotted with crosses like punctuation marks, I realized just how isolated I’d been. How impossible it would have been to call an ambulance and how restful to have been spared from a slew of strangers’ emoji-riddled condolences and holiday greetings. How these realities are bizarrely and inextricably connected.
Ultimately, how we mourn is immensely personal, and to a degree, we all have to figure it out alone.
We are also, thankfully, figuring it out together.
From Creative Nonfiction Issue 77: Resilience, available here.