Thursday, September 1, 2011


As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, there's one topic that comes up a lot in conversations here, and that is the fact that this country does such a crappy job with grief and mourning.

Above is a painting by Gustave Courbet from 1849 of the funeral of his uncle in the small French town of Ornans. By the standards of the day, this was a very routine funeral. For us here (and possibly in France), such a ceremony is unimaginable today. The grave is open and undisguised. But even more than that, this funeral is not a private ceremony for the family, but a public occasion for the town. The mayor stands near the center. Two red robed justices attend. Everyone wears black, and open grieving is not exactly being discouraged. The fact of loss is openly and publicly acknowledged. The family loses a loved one. The parish says farewell to a departing soul. The town bids a formal farewell to one of its citizens.

I remember many years ago watching on teevee an interview with a man whose son had been kidnapped and murdered. The poor man felt obliged to put as brave a face on the loss as possible, "we'll get through this." I remember thinking, "Forget about getting through it. There are times when it's fit and proper to sit in an ash heap and tear your garments and wail, and this is one of them." Our very atomized society and youth-fixated culture gives the bereaved and their comforters very little to work with. The bereaved are left to grieve in isolation, and their acquaintances are terrified of saying anything wrong or offensive. In this very private society, we have few if any structures or rituals for people to come together to acknowledge loss and to comfort each other. Funerals and memorials become either obligatory rituals to be handled as efficiently and expeditiously as possible, or they are so very treacly and over-the-top.


Tristan Alexander said...

My mother died Aug. 16, she was my last direct relative. My birthday is Sept. 10 (I hate 9/11 cause ALL I ever hear for weeks leading yup to my birthday is 9/11 stuff!! 2 days before 9/11 happend, I was told I had cancer...I am better now, but the fear of Cancer is still with me.

It has been 10 years, we all need to GET OVER 9/11!!

Robert Brenchley said...

My brothers-in-law had public funerals in Freetown, Sierra Leone, one attended by the Attorney-General and his armed bodyguard. It all depends on the local culture; we try to hide death away these days, in a very unhealthy fashion. Obviously, they didn't do so back then!

JCF said...

[Tristan, you don't strike me as the hugging type. Yet I'd like to give you a {{{hug}}} anyway. My sympathies to you for the loss of your mother. I lost mine almost 4 years ago, and it's still hard at times. Good health&wholeness to you!]

Jesus weeping for Lazarus sure doesn't fit the bill for stoic American manhood, does he?

Really like the painting, Doug (Me being me, I want to pet the dog!)

Counterlight said...

It's been 11 years since my non-smoking father died of lung cancer (exhibit A in my case for the fundamental crapulence of the universe).
I had to grit my teeth every time someone asked "How long did he smoke." People meant well, but it still irritated me.

His funeral was definitely of the expedient variety held in a strip mall funeral chapel followed by as fast a cremation as the State of Texas would allow.

Despite that, around 200 people showed up, some traveling to get there, and some attending despite poor health. He meant a lot to a lot of people. I found that to be very consoling (I still do). To this day, a lot of people remember him fondly, and will for the rest of their lives. He was hardly what anyone would call great success in life. He lost more money than he made. He had no outstanding talents. His major passion in life was obsolete technology, especially railroads of the old steam powered kind, plus old airplanes and cars.
He was never going to be on any magazine cover. And yet, there was a big turnout at his funeral, and people still talk about him happily more than a decade after his death. There's a lot to be said for just being honest, doing right by people, and not treating them like crap.

I still miss him.

I don't think I'd ever tell anyone to "Get over" anything.

IT said...

I guess the best we can hope is that the hole in the heart is eventually, partly filled with the consolation of fond memory.

I lost my dad 7 months ago today. Still seems a little unreal that he's gone. People were clearly relieved that I did not grieve "in public". My family is very private stiff-upper-lip. And we have all distracted ourselves in caring for Mom. Who won't admit that she is still grieving too.

it's margaret said...

Good grief is holy.

My mom was murdered by my brother a few days before Christmas three and a half years ago.

Some grief there is no getting over --shouldn't get over --can't get over --but it can become a highly polished gem... --a subverted counter-intuitive joy --kinda like the cross to a Christian.

Counterlight said...

I suppose the best we can do is learn to live with the loss. Healing from a death is like "healing" from an amputation, at least in my experience.

Kittredge Cherry said...

When I first saw the painting at the top of this post, I thought it was a new masterpiece by you, Doug. I hope that you take this as a compliment.

Thanks for sharing your grief. I can relate... too much to be able to put in a blog comment.

it's margaret said...



JCF said...

Oh, Margaret, I clearly don't know your story (just from checking in on your blog---that's mainly IT's doing, I think, in putting it in the FoJ blogroll). I have no words to say for that kind of trauma. God comfort you.

It's been 11 years since my non-smoking father died of lung cancer

...and Doug, I didn't know that, either. It's been almost 6 months since I lost my good friend Cathy the same way.

We all lose people we love: that should be one of the Realities that binds human beings together [Though too often, it leads to comparative victimization: "Your 'loss'? What about My LOSS????" (Palestine/Israel, in a nutshell. Humanity, in a nutshell. Oy vey!)]

Counterlight said...

"We all lose people we love: that should be one of the Realities that binds human beings together [Though too often, it leads to comparative victimization: "Your 'loss'? What about My LOSS????" (Palestine/Israel, in a nutshell. Humanity, in a nutshell. Oy vey!)]"


Counterlight said...


I'm definitely not Courbet, but I am flattered. Thanks.