Mourning in Groups, Mourning Alone

I’m reading a difficult text now, and it gives me good excuses to take a moment here and there to write up some thoughts that have been running through my mind. With news that another friend has died in another land, I’m struck by the enormity of what so many people have called the ‘labor of mourning.’ ((for only one example, see what is perhaps Derrida’s best work, Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international. New York: Routledge.))
It’s old news, ever since the Durkheimians, that a major part of the labor of mourning is to re-assert the existence of community in the face of death. This was Robert Hertz’ main point in his foundational essay “A contribution to the study of the collective representation of death” ((Hertz, Robert. 1960. A contribution to the study of the collective representation of death. In Death and the right hand, edited by R. Hertz. Aberdeen: University Press.)). Hertz, a disciple of Durkheim’s and a close associate of Marcel Mauss’, went farther than merely showing that societies must mourn together because they share in the impurity of death, he also showed that the procedures by which we mourn not only assert our ongoing corporate identity, they establish and reproduce the hierarchies within them. This theme has been elaborated on intensively through subsequent ethnographies ((Jonathan Parry’s excellent Death in Banares is a great example, as is the volume he co-edited with Maurice Bloch, and Maurice Bloch’s own excellent work on the topic of the famidahana. See also David Graeber’s criticism of Bloch’s interpretation, which doesn’t change the thrust but if anything makes it more poignant. Parry, Jonathan P. 1994. Death in Banaras (The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures 1988). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Bloch, Maurice. 1981. Tombs and states. In Mortality and immortality. The  anthropology and archaeology of death, edited by S. C. Humphreys and H. King. London & New York: Academic Press; Bloch, Maurice, and Jonathan Parry. 1982. Death and the regeneration of life. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press; Graeber, David. 1997. Painful memories. Journal of religion in Africa 27 (4, Religion in Madagascar II):374-400.)).

What has received less attention however is the refusal to mourn. By this I don’t mean the gloating refusal to acknowledge loss, usually by a victor in war or conflict, or the sense of schadenfreude that can emerge when someone you dislike viscerally passes their time, something I’ve engaged in myself on these very pages, to my occasional shame. Instead, what I mean are those occasions where one cannot bring oneself to join in a corporate act of mourning (mourning is by definition corporate and public, anything else are better understood as grief and loss). We may do this for all sorts of reasons, but most of them revolve around that second insight of Hertz’s – it’s not only the person who died, it’s also the manner in which someone is mourned that makes a difference.

For instance, a friend of mine died recently abroad. I wanted to be a part of her service, but could not be. In a sense, though, my desire to mourn and join in further legitimates the manner in which she was mourned, and the ramifications, social, symbolic, and personal, of that manner of mourning. If I had been there and refused to join, I would have had to find reasons – too busy (meaning that my work is more important than our collective loss), angry at the inclusion of someone I considered partly responsible for her death in the mourning process, or even a discomfort with the religious idiom in which the funeral was performed. All of these are judgments which imply a criticism of the group, and separate my loss from the loss of the group.

What happens to my grief and loss if I reject the corporate mourning (as I did not, to be clear, this is just an example) is another matter, less social perhaps, but no less real. Trauma scholars, a group I have an uneasy relationship with, often speak of traumatic memories as those which are not ‘textualized,’ or ‘worked through’ in a public manner.

Certainly something like this happened to Durkheim himself, though he didn’t refuse to mourn. His son, along with Robert Hertz and a great number of Durkheim’s disciples, were killed in World War I. Durkheim was crushed and never recovered. Marcel Mauss had to pick up the mantle of French anthropology, which he did, of course, marvelously, only to be in turn crushed beyond recognition by a sense of grief and responsibility for World War II.


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