This short, elegiac piece in the New Yorker covers about 150 years of social theory about death, wound ’round the pathos-laden story of “Miss Death.”
Then mourning rituals in the West began to disappear, for reasons that are not entirely evident. The British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, the author of “Death, Grief, and Mourning” (1965), conjectures that the First World War was one cause in Britain: communities were so overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of dead that they dropped the practice of mourning for the individual. Certainly, there does seem to be an intuitive economy of grief: during war, plague, and disaster, elaborate mourning is often simplified or dispensed with, as we now see in Haiti. But many more Americans died during the Civil War than during the First World War; it seems, then, that broader changes in the culture hastened the shift.
Even before the war, according to Emily Post, mourning clothes were already becoming optional for any but the closest of kin. More people, including women, began working outside the home; in the absence of caretakers, death increasingly took place in the protective, and isolating, swaddling of the hospital. With the rise of psychoanalysis came a shift in attention from the communal to the individual experience. Only two years after Émile Durkheim wrote about mourning as an essential social process, Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” defined it as something fundamentally private and individual. In a stroke, the work of mourning had become internalized. As Ariès says, within a few generations grief had undergone a fundamental change: death and mourning had been largely removed from the public realm. In 1973, Ernest Becker argued, in “The Denial of Death,” that avoidance of death is built into the human mind; instead of confronting our own mortality, we create symbolic “hero-systems,” conceptualizing an immortal self that, through imagination, allows us to transcend our physical transience. (“In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die,” the young Nick Adams thinks in the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp.”) Gorer himself had diagnosed an over-all silencing of the mourner: “Today it would seem to be believed, quite sincerely, that sensible, rational men and women can keep their mourning under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression, and indulged, if at all, in private, as furtively as . . . masturbation.” Ariès added that this silence was “not due to the frivolity of survivors, but to a merciless coercion applied by society.”