We seem to be undergoing something which I am resisting calling a sea-change – let’s call it a land-change – on how to mark death. Death as a subject is almost as taboo as sex used to be when I was young: it’s considered in poor taste to bring it up in polite conversation. You can talk about illness all you like, but don’t mention the d-word. On the other hand there is an explosion of public grief at events like the anniversary of the Manchester bombing.
Let me say this at once: the Manchester bombing and other similar events are terrible. It could easily have been our daughter had she been a few years younger, and the targeting of young people is particularly horrible. That those directly affected should show grief in public is entirely understandable. But as Matthew Parris pointed out yesterday:
(it’s about 21 minutes in)
the stiff upper lip has gone and is replaced by almost compulsory public grief. I can’t summon up much grief for the passing of the SUL, and yet I think somehow things have got a little out of control. Private grief is probably best expressed privately, by which I don’t mean on your own with a box of tissues (unless that is genuinely best for you) but shared with friends, family members or counsellors. However that is entirely different from feeling compelled to express emotion at events which don’t affect us in the slightest (Tony Blair comes irresistibly to mind here.) It’s not enough to care; you must show that you care, and the best way to do that is by shedding a tear. If you’re being interviewed about some crisis in your life, better cry a little – that way people will take it more seriously. They will ‘feel your pain.’
On the other hand, there’s the whole funeral phenomenon. Funerals used to be a time for wearing black and looking solemn; for walking or driving very slowly behind a big black hearse; for wearing veils and looking at the ground. But nowadays you’re as likely to be asked to ‘wear bright colours’ and ‘celebrate someone’s life’ – and I can’t help feeling there’s an imbalance in all this. I dislike enforced cheerfulness even more than I dislike enforced misery: at least when wearing black you could look sad; but now we’re all supposed to be joyful. I’ve even seen a blue hearse – and don’t even get me started on the speed of the average cortege as it nips down the road. It’s like the one in ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (I can’t find a clip but you know what I mean.)
So on the one hand we have ubiquitous grief on the media; on the other we have bright colours and fast hearses. What is going on?