On Mourning

I was going to make this a twitter thread, but while threads are a thing that works (more or less) on Twitter, making them can be kind of awkward. So I figured I’d blog this and link to it on Twitter.

So, I’ve been seeing some tweets and comments around that imply that someone(s) out there has been complaining that publicly mourning celebrities is somehow improper, or insincere, or just, you know, merely performative. I seem to have muted or blocked anyone in my own feeds likely to say something like this, so I’m not taking issue with any particular comment. I’m just thinking about the idea that “performative” mourning is insincere somehow, or only about getting the mourner social brownie points or whatever.

The way I see it, though, all mourning is performative. Not all grieving, right? The way you feel when you lose someone important to you, that’s private. But all the other things. Going to your relative’s funeral? Performative. Going to the funeral home to tell your friend or neighbor you’re sorry for their loss? One hundred percent performative. Hell, holding a funeral at all is entirely performance.

Funerals aren’t for the dead. They are social activities, and they fulfill particular social functions–ones that are really, really important to us, as demonstrated by the very strong urge to have at least some small scrap of a funeral for someone who dies in circumstances that make whatever one’s standard funerary practices are impossible.

Mourning practices do a number of things–they provide some kind of closure, sure. An official “now that’s done” so people can move forward. But they also affirm (and re-affirm) communities. They affirm the deceased’s membership in one or more communities, and in the process also affirm the continued existence of those communities. Mourners declare their relationship to the deceased, and incidentally their relationships to each other.

Mourning publicly also allows people to offer support to the bereaved–those co-workers or friends who show up at the funeral home to say an awkward “I’m so sorry” do help, I can tell you from personal experience. And I know it’s one hundred percent performative–this person doesn’t know my grandma or my mom or my uncle or whoever, they’re turning up to tell me they know what I’m going through, and they care. And the other folks who come–the friends and business associates and acquaintances of the deceased, who the family may never have met, they are also performing. They come to tell the bereaved that the deceased was important to them, that they honor them, that they’ll miss them.

It’s all performance. Every bit of it. It’s nearly all public performance. There are customs and rituals associated with it, so that when the time comes, you know (mostly) what to do, to activate that support, to let people know that you need that comfort now.

It gets weird, with public figures. These are people that might be very, very important to us, might have formed our childhoods, given us inspiration, been constant companions in one way or another, and yet we’ve never met them, and they never had any idea that we existed. It’s not the same as a close loved one dying. But it’s not nothing. And what do you do, when someone not exactly family dies, but you had some sort of relationship with them? Well, if you were in the same town you’d put on nice clothes and comb your hair and go to the funeral parlor and tell the family how sorry you were, how important the deceased was to you, maybe tell them about some time they really helped you out. And then you move aside for the next person, maybe talk with some folks, and go home. Maybe you send flowers, that will sit there in the funeral home and in the church as a conspicuously visible token of your tie to the deceased, or their family, or a particular member of that family.

We aren’t any of us going to Carrie Fisher’s wake. Her family doesn’t want to slog through thousands of cards or letters, and there’s no mortuary large enough to hold the flowers we might all send. But we can blog or tweet. And yes, it’s performative. Like all funeral customs and public mourning it’s performative. It’s meant to send a message. “I am a member of this community, and this person was important to us. This community recognizes their loss. This community wants the deceased’s family to know how important this person was to us, and how sorry we are to hear they’ve left us.” And maybe her family doesn’t see most of it, but they likely know it’s there. I suspect that, like “I’m sorry” at the funeral home, it helps.

And it’s not just for the family, of course. It’s for that other, maybe intersecting community (friends, co-workers, fans, whatever). No, losing George Michael or David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher probably isn’t even remotely like losing your aunt or your sister or your daughter. But it’s not nothing.

It’s all performative. It’s all for show. Hell, any time you get dressed and walk out the door it’s performative, it’s for show. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily insincere or bad or somehow wrong and shallow. It means you can’t communicate without doing a thing that others will understand–and during a time of stress we have a series of more or less ritual acts to make, more or less formulaic lines to speak, wearing more or less conventional clothes, to get us through, together. It’s all for show.

Some of the people publicly mourning may be insincere, sure, but that’s not really the point, is it? Mostly they’re not. No, the problem isn’t that tweets about Bowie or Michael or Prince or Fisher aren’t sincere, it’s that the critic doesn’t think they have standing to mourn, or thinks those tweets are somehow improper. But, you know, nobody gets to decide that for you, do they.

No. They do not.

10 thoughts on “On Mourning

  1. G
    Genevieve Williams says:

    When my kung fu teacher died I went through air travel hell to make it back to Seattle for his funeral. The entire time I knew that he wouldn’t have cared one way or the other and even would have found my determination amusing, albeit possibly touching. And it didn’t change how I felt, not really. But being there in community was so important. You’re right.

    I wonder what those voicing criticism are hoping to accomplish, and whether what they are really expressing is discomfort with the public expression of emotion.

  2. E
    EB says:

    The affirming that a community of like-minded people exist, and have relationships to one another inspired by our relationship to the public figure– that’s a really important point.

    I mourn Carrie Fisher because she was an outspoken advocate for normalizing “abnormality.” By being herself, by refusing to conform or keep quiet, she created space for a community of disabled folks and uppity women to give themselves permission to be themselves, to be difficult, to push through difficulties. Identity and how it is constructed is necessarily performative, too.

    The folks who naysay are the same ones who might accuse a person of being “too” crazy or feminist or whatever other outspoken thing made them feel uncomfortable about their own BS.

  3. m
    mg says:

    One person I know who criticized truly didn’t understand how meaningful these people are to many of us (when you’re in your 20s, it can be hard to understand how important someone can be either in their influence on you or by having been an integral part of your youth), and also was grieving the sudden loss of a parent – and therefore saw lesser losses as being trivial by comparison.

    By being patient and empathetic, I was able to get her to better understand. It wasn’t callousness or arrogance on her part – and she appreciated having it explained to her. I think it’s always best to avoid assuming bad motives in people’s reactions.

    1. A
      Athan Chilton says:

      I don’t even feel that being in one’s 20s necessarily impedes the recognition of loss of a valued/loved public individual…I was 14 when JFK was assassinated… I was in my late 20s when John Lennon was murdered. There was no real age gap in grieving, publicly, at these losses…everyone was shocked and mourning.

  4. A
    Alex says:

    Do you think going to a grave by yourself is performative? I don’t think going to a funeral has to be performing for other people, but it can be an action for yourself (not for the deceased, not for others, but for just yourself).

    Perhaps you mean perform in the sense that you are performing an action (not that you are performing for an audience), but the talk about communication leads me to believe otherwise. A solitary visit to grave isn’t performative in a communicative sense, save for some magical thinking (or other magic beyond my comprehension).

    I certainly don’t mean to argue about this, I just see it a little differently. I am affected by celebrity deaths rarely, but Bowie and Fischer put some real rocks on my heart. Perhaps this comment is just my performance.

    1. L
      Lenora Rose says:

      RE: Private mourning processes like graveside visits — I don’t think it’s performative, as such, but it is ritualistic, which is the broader area of which performative behavior is the more public set. Humans often live by ritual.

      And absolutely, public mourning can also be for oneself, but then one has to ask, what makes that public ritual the one chosen? Tradition, usually. The knowing and observing of the forms. being raised from childhood to say “this is how it’s done”

      I have lost two elderly family members recently (My grandmother and my husband’s aunt). One had a traditional funeral, the other did not, but did have a smaller family gathering, closer in format to our gatherings at holidays. Both were different performative rituals, and gatherings to affirm that yes, we all knew and loved this person. They mattered. I’ve also therefore thought a few times abut the differences in the person and the people around them that led to this change in ritual, but also in whether what was satisfying and appropriate for one would have been at all suited to the other. (in both cases, no, though the less traditional one would have fared a bit better as a traditional funeral, mostly because “it’s tradition” would have carried a lot of people through the awkward aspects.)

  5. A
    A.Beth says:

    I can see going to a grave by oneself as performative, if one believes in an afterlife. Or it can be for one’s own closure/thoughtsz or processing the loss. Or both performative & private reasons. And even performing *to* oneself, as a reaffirmation of community. If that makes sense. (Also there’s Performative as a form of processing, coping, dealing with grief by going through the motions we are told to go through, in the hopes it will ease the pain somehow.)

    Grieving is complex.

    1. A
      Alex says:

      “Performative as a form of processing, coping, dealing with grief by going through the motions we are told to go through…” I think that is def another interesting way to use the word performative here. It also kinda ties into ritual as mentioned by Lenora Rose in the previous comment. I intended to address afterlife by considering “other magic beyond my comprehension.” I completely agree grieving is complex!

  6. K
    Kai Jones says:

    I am not sure how you are using “performative” here, even after reading through the post twice, but I would characterize the most important part of public mourning as the opportunity to request, receive, and demonstrate compassion–to ask for your community to care for you during your grief, to receive that care, and to care for others in your community who are grieving. And I think you cover that in one of the paragraphs.

    There are many private mourning practices (as a Jew I light candles for yarzheit for various people I’ve loved) that are not performed for an audience, but for one’s own benefit.

  7. Diana is the perfect example, and yes, I was here in London for that so long ago, now.

    Diana’s celebrity came from the fairytale myth of princess, from Snow White and Cinderella and others who embody our dream of perfect love and marriage, of courage and beauty and grace.

    When she died, when they die, it is we who die, our dreams that die, a bit of us lost forever.

    “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”


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