Tomorrow, Good Friday, Christians darken their churches to mourn the crucifixion of their almighty, Jesus Christ. This year, so far, we have prayed goodbye to several other idols, famed and venerated for their creative accomplishments. Now, Europe is head-bowed for the everyday people torn by terror in Brussels. What are the best ways to aesthetically represent this mourning together?
News reportage, arguably, captures the spirit of a collective outpouring of grief in a most immediate, impactful way. The death of Princess Diana in 1997 is probably the most memorable British version of the flower and candle type memorials. These shrines may feel obligatory but that doesn’t make them less important; they appear to give us a creative space to express feelings with form and point.
Expertly produced representations of national mourning can also be found on TV. This medium has the technical ability and flexibility to capture the scale of both event and solemnity. From Remembrance ceremonies to State funerals, the execution is mostly professional, sombre and considered. Pathé News coverage of Winston Churchill’s state funeral in 1965 may have set an early precedent;
And now television can produce high quality broadcasts with very little preparation. This Emmy nominated programme from NOS (the Dutch Public Broadcaster) was broadcast live just 22 hours after the Dutch Government declared July 23rd as National Day of Mourning for the victims of the MH 17 crash.
(The National Day of Mourning)
NOS Broadcasting Organization
When the scale of loss is big, or the shock very great or the reputation very high, it appears fiction can’t match fact. So the film world has tackled loss and death and grief in many ways, in small ways. It has found form to express the feelings of individuals or families or small groups of friends. But on a collective or civic level it hasn’t yet managed to capture the intensity of feeling that grabs us, the bigger national or worldwide “us”. It’s a paradox, perhaps that the big screen can’t capture big grief (certainly not in the same way the small screen can).
Not that the film industry hasn’t tried; The Queen (2006) is an examination of the public pressure on the Queen following the death of the “People’s Princess”, Diana. The Impossible 2014 sought to show the devastation caused by the Indian Ocean Tsanami of 2004. Whilst Babel (2006) with it’s all star cast, wished to offer answers to increasing cultural fragmentation, by telling inter-locking stories across 3 continents.
There have also been various attempts to examine the events of 9/11 and it’s impact. The closest retelling is probably Paul Greenwood’s United 93 (2006) A real-time account of the events on United Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Humor often helps to give us a way to express grief but there’s little offered as comedy. Chris Morris, though, has seen this modern day clash of political and religious ideology in satirical terms; Four Lions.
Whilst these films have creative merit they don’t explain this (modern) compulsion to grieve together in times of shock or loss. There’s also an issue of tangibility. After all, this national grief is aimed at strangers, mainly. We feel sorrow not for people we know but for the circumstances of the event. This is tricky for storytellers – how do they portray that collective feeling or represent so many people. And also, perhaps, many of these events are still too close for fictional examination. (It took 10 years before the BBC tackled the London 7/7 bombings in, A Song for Jenny, to critical acclaim last year.)
By looking further into the past, though, we can find other cultural interpretations of national mourning. Poetic words, written long ago, have oft been regarded as comfort in times of personal grief, but now appear to provide balm for a national conscience. There are many well known elegies but W.H. Auden is arguably the best known (Funeral Blues/ Elegy for JFK, ). Others include; Thomas Hardy (The Convergence of the Twain), Sylvia Plath (Daddy), Seamus Heaney (Funeral Rites), WB Yeats (Easter, 1916)- perhaps now, pop poets for our time. Jahan Ramazani agrees there is a difficulty in creative work about collective grief; it could fall foul of nationalism, jingoism or religiosity. Instead he feels strongly that elegies should offer no consolation or attempt to rationalize senseless death (and in particular mass slaughter). It’s this refusal that gives the words their power. Can poetry console a grieving public?
Many poets admire Wilfred Owen’s (Anthem for Doomed Youth/ Futility) work for it’s influence and profundity and there really is much to commend other creative work born out of the First World War. (And Testament of Youth, Dame Vera Britten)
But maybe it’s this simple yet, searing, lamentation, Youth Mourning by Sir George Clausen;
that best captures and represents what we mean by “collective grief”.
Elephants mourn too – http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/elephant_african_mourning
Top 10 books about grief – http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/10/helen-humphreys-top-10-books-grief
Why we mourn celebrities – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/bouncing-back/201601/3-reasons-we-mourn-celebrity-deaths
What the deaths of David Bowie and Diana …teaches us – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/what-the-deaths-of-david-bowie-and-princess-diana-teach-us-about-why-we-mourn-in-public-a6822956.html
A timely find this. James Ensor took on religion, politics, and art in this scene of Christ entering contemporary Brussels. The crowd is a chaotic mob in a Mardi Gras type parade, self-interested and self-congratulatory. Christ, on a donkey at the back, is insignificant and unregarded in a time of increasing inequality, corruption and tension. It is now on display in the Getty Museum in LA.