What happens when we can’t?
By Meghan O’Rourke
One recent night, as my concern mounted about the spreading coronavirus, my partner observed in reassurance: “It’s not like it’s the Spanish flu. People are still able to hold funerals.” On the very next day came the news that Italy had banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals — meaning people can no longer come together to grieve the dead. With coronavirus cases exponentially rising in the United States, this problem may soon be ours, too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that families hold “virtual” funerals, streamed online, to limit the numbers in attendance.
Most of us have adjusted quickly, or tried to, amid the radical changes that constitute our new normal. But this possibility — that the newly bereaved may be unable to hold funerals — is a gutting reality we may never make peace with. Within it lies the trauma of the pandemic: This global public health crisis brings with it a surge of infection-driven death and chaos (temporary, we hope) that few of us have ever witnessed. There’s a lot we can numb ourselves to in order to survive. But I’m not sure we can numb ourselves to the idea that we can no longer come together for funeral rites — behavior that defines us as human.
Mourning rituals across cultures show that we need others to grieve with us. After my mother died in late 2008, I was struck by how these rituals, which had once seemed rote to me, suddenly became important. I craved social recognition that I was no longer myself, exactly, that the loss had made me a new person. The bereaved need witnesses to help them begin to separate themselves from the dead, to adjust to the sudden, shocking absence of their beloveds. Most cultures have a scripted set of customs: rituals tied to the preparation of the body; rules about the period before the burial. At an Irish wake, mourners gather to visit the body of the deceased, saying their goodbyes and often telling celebratory, even raucous stories in honor of the life now gone. In Jewish culture, mourners sit shiva typically for seven days, supporting those who were closest to the dead person. In many such rituals, visitors are meant to take their cue from the primary mourners — looking at the floor if the widow was somber, talking if she wanted to talk. In the Muslim tradition, the body is buried as soon as possible, but visits of comfort happen afterward (again, it is believed that social encounters help with grief), as well as a 40-day mourning period, in which the community is encouraged to send flowers and food to the bereaved. To support mourners, many traditions feature more than one ritual over the course of a year or two at specific times, including, in Judaism, the yahrzeit observance, commemorating the anniversary of a death. Everywhere, food is welcome and passed around: “a small, good thing,” as Raymond Carver put it in a short story about sharing fresh bread after an unthinkable loss.
The coronavirus pandemic is changing us in ways we can’t imagine yet. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the dead exert power over us long after they are gone. All the more so when the circumstances of loss are traumatic, as they are now in northern Italy, where the hospital system is overwhelmed and near breaking — and as they may soon be in the United States. In “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” the historian Drew Gilpin Faust points out that the mass casualties in that war “transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss.” Americans began referring to the “ordinary death” that existed before the war, distinct from the extraordinary deaths during it. Surrounded by death, Americans embraced ideas that made it seem less of an irrevocable loss: The first national Spiritualist conference was held in 1864 in Chicago, the idea that it was possible to communicate with the dead having grown more popular during the war years. Some modern funeral practices — embalming, for example — were born of an emotional need then: Families wanted to see the bodies of their loved ones, and embalming helped slow their decomposition, allowing them to be shipped home on slow trains.
Through mourning, we insist that erasure isn’t complete. We honor what was and give shape to the fact that — through our loss, our love — the person who is gone still exists in our minds. Our disposal of our dead distinguishes us from animals. As the scholar Robert Pogue Harrison writes in “The Dominion of the Dead,” “Humans bury not simply to achieve closure and effect a separation from the dead, but also and above all to humanize the ground on which they build their worlds and found their histories.” When we don’t do it, we have a sense of deep wrong. Think of the lengths to which we go to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers. In 1993, for example, the American ambassador to Somalia negotiated with clan leaders in Mogadishu to bring home the bodies of the helicopter crewmen and Special Ops soldiers who had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. In this current crisis, it’s not as if we won’t be burying our dead, but many people are dying alone in hospitals, unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, and even in the days after, an essential social element is missing. Something in us, at the core of our humanity, wants to elegize, to remember — and to do it together.
The science of mourning is hard to pin down, as one might expect with such a complex human process, but studies suggest that rituals do help the bereaved: They bring some immediate relief to acute grief, and they establish formal avenues of coping and social support. Holding a funeral, saying goodbye to a loved one’s body, marks the rift between life and death, the rending of the universe we feel. To bury, Harrison writes, is not literally or merely to put in the earth (humans also have cremation, and sky burial, and more), but “in a broader sense it means to store, preserve, and put the past on hold.”
So what happens to us now, in a moment that presents these challenges? As during the Civil War, we face a bright line between the ordinary past and the extraordinary present, a before and a now whose full ramifications — emotional, economic, psychological and national — we cannot begin to understand. We hardly know what now is; we won’t until the worst is over. Along the way, we will surely find alternate ways to grieve, watching our funerals on the blue light of our screens, distant but not isolated, trying to be together while apart. The challenge is to find meaning in the chaos — to find a story we can hold onto, even in the stark absence of a reassuring ending to this pandemic in sight.
The coronavirus pandemic will be understood by its cost in lives, but also by its economic, social and cultural costs, by how it forces us to reconceive ourselves and our humanity. This is yet another reason to push to “flatten the curve,” as epidemiologists put it: so we are not forced into such isolation that most of us are unable to mourn together.
My father died suddenly in a hospital two years ago, on March 9, from a case of pneumonia that turned into sepsis and caused further complications. The two weeks when his body was fighting sepsis were disorienting, timeless, traumatic, full of beeping machines and sunless rooms. His sudden turn for the worse came while he was with strangers; we never said goodbye. But his doctor was kind enough to let us go into the operating room where a team had tried to save his life: restarting his heart, ventilating him and more. When we saw his body, it looked small and alone, heartbreakingly so. But at least I have an image to hold on to, had a chance to touch his hand and whisper our love, the love that underpins grief and drives the living to mourn, through ritual and memory, the gulf between us and those who have gone. We know what is by marking the shape of what is lost; we do that by saying goodbye, together.
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