Rituals of Mourning in the Public Sphere

How do various emotional responses emerge out of rituals of public mourning? This is the question examined in various contexts by the panel “Mass Mourning: Objects, Affects, Publics.”

Zoe Crossland examined these issues in relation to a fire at a royal palace in highland Madagascar. Examining the varying local meanings of the burnt palace, as well as the broader local history of political firemaking, Dr. Crossland demonstrated that the burning of the palace constituted a direct attack on the physical traces of the colonial past and that past’s ability to impact the future. Conventionally, mourning is though of as an exercise in remembering the past. Dr. Crossland, however, urges us to consider mourning not only as an exercise in recognizing a specific version of the past, but also as a form of grieving for a lost future. In examining these arsons, Dr. Crossland suggests a way of speaking about the future that is not tethered to notions of progress.

Shannon Dowdy took the sorts of “votive litter” that have come to dominate impromptu memorials after the sudden deaths of celebrities as the point of entry into similar questions of temporality. The ephemeral nature of such impromptu memorials, Dr. Dowdy argues, differs significantly from the established views of more permanent memorials and shrines. For Dr. Dowdy, these ephemeral memorials hold the power to disrupt people’s regular spatial and temporal experiences of the city in ways that more permanent memorials cannot.

The question of who or what exactly is the object of mass mourning was the central concern of Alexei Yurchak’s paper, read in abstentia by Jeremy Walton. Dr. Yurchak’s paper exmined the body politic’s relation to the dead body of Vladimir I. Lenin. In contrast to the Christian tradition, which values the material continuity of the body as the index of identity, Lenin’s body is preserved in form only, with new materials added to the corpse to maintain the precise form of the body at the moment of death. The figure preserved, Dr. Yurchak argues, is thus not Lenin the man, but rather the author of Leninism, which is an artifact of the Stalinist state.

William Mazzarella looked at a similarly elaborate state-orchestrated ritual of mass mourning, the death of Kim Jong Il. For Dr. Mazzarella, however, what was notable in such rituals was less the mourning itself so much as the Western media’s skeptical reaction to highly emotional displays of mourning on the part of North Koreans. On the one hand, media outlets conveyed skepticism of the mourner’s sincerity; while on the other hand, they marveled at the ways the totalitarian state had successfully brainwashed an ignorant public. Dr. Mazzarella used this contradiction to examine the media itself, asking if the Western media might in fact be mourning the loss of Mr. Kim, who served as an important mirror for their own liberal worlds.

Tamara Kneese detailed an emerging set of practices designed to prolong one’s lifetime through digital inscriptions. This involves everything from the planning for post-mortem social networks presence, all the way towards archiving digital copies of one’s DNA. Such efforts, Ms. Kneese argues, have the effect of reducing the phenomenological experience of humans to code. In the process, thy value the primacy of networks over liberal human subjectivity, raising a host of new questions about the ways the living interact with the dead.

In his discussion of the panel, Thomas Laqueur pointed out that mass mourning is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating perhaps back to the 18th Century. Nonetheless, he argued, the panel touched on a theme universal to the human experience: the veneration of the dead.

Laqueur’s discussion points the way towards future avenues for researching public rituals of mass mourning. Anthropologists have long studied rituals of mourning in diverse cultural contexts. But is there something particular about the ways that modern, liberal, and secular states publicly mourn? What do such rituals tell us about larger political, economic, and social forces? The panelists of this panel provide an important starting point for anyone interested in these 

Jonah S Rubin is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the relationship between remembering, forensic practices, and democratic politics in contemporary exhumations of dead bodies from the Spanish Civil War and ensuing Franco dictatorship.

Image Citation: "In North Korea, an Outpouring of Grief" via nytimes.com