Speaking of Dying
Do public rituals of grief ever help us mourn?
Julia Cooper takes on the eulogy in literature, popular culture and social media in The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy and,
not surprisingly, finds it wanting as an outlet to assuage grief. She argues that “in a culture that sees death every day and yet hides the traces of grief that follow, there aren’t enough words for loss.” I don’t know if more words would help, but I do agree that ours is a death-denying culture. As an obituary writer, I am an avid reader of death announcements on social media and in traditional newspapers, but I am frequently appalled by the euphemisms mourners use in writing or speaking about the deceased. Some examples are “in a better place,” a “new star in the firmament,” “smiling down on us” (and its variants) and the ubiquitous “passed” to soften the reality that somebody has, in fact, died. As for condolences, I cringe whenever I hear a stranger tritely offer sympathy by saying, “I am sorry for your loss,” as if the bereaved has mislaid a car or a handbag.
Early on, in The Last Word, Cooper argues that the “eulogy is a particularly vexed art form, partly because it’s a necessity, and partly because at its very heart it is an amateur’s art.” She places it somewhere between the elegy, “a poetic form that laments its dead in verse, and the obituary [which] announces the hard fact of loss in the newspaper—all the deaths that are fit to print.” Terminology is a problem in this very slim book. A eulogy is a tribute in speech or written form. However common they are these days, eulogies are a choice, not a necessity. The homily, a short sermon delivered by a priest or a minister, has a much stronger tradition, especially in religious services for the dead. Cooper also confuses paid classified advertisements placed by friends or family to announce the death of a loved one with the long practice of assigning a journalist to write a (supposedly objective) biographical assessment of a noteworthy person in a newspaper or on a website. At its best, an obituary captures the complexity of a human life—failures as well as triumphs, weaknesses as well as strengths—and sets it within the context of contemporary times.
Since we’re speaking of obituaries, Cooper’s only discussion of the form is a bizarre critique of “Novelist Shelved,” a self-parody Norman Mailer wrote for the September 1979 issue of Boston magazine. “Norman Mailer passed away yesterday after celebrating his fifteenth divorce and sixteenth wedding,” Mailer wrote in his mock obituary. He goes on to say: “When asked, on occasion why he married so often, the former Pulitzer Prize winner replied, ‘To get divorced. You don’t know anything about a woman until you meet her in court’.” Satire, yes?
Apparently not. Cooper, who does not bother to look at any of the dozens of obituaries that appeared after Mailer’s death on November 10, 2007, seems to take his 1979 pre-obituary at face value. After quoting extensively from Mailer’s piece, Cooper complains that “Mailer chose to make the subject of his own eulogy [sic] not his literary achievements but the splintered branches of his immediate family tree, which in turn highlights for the reader the author’s strapping virility.” Really? I thought Mailer, rather than boasting about his (faded) machismo, was spoofing the tendency for some journalists to downplay books and concentrate on marital infidelities. If you do not believe me, look up the piece. It is a fun read.
Cooper sprinkles her book with fictional and actual examples of eulogies gone wrong, from the character played by Liam Neeson introducing a recording of “Bye Bye Baby” by the Bay City Rollers at his wife’s funeral in the over-the-top Christmas romantic comedy Love Actually to Sir Elton John’s rewritten “Candle in the Wind” performed at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in Westminster Abbey on September 6, 1997. I think one could argue that the first example was meant to be a send-up of death and funerals and the other was a musical performance, but never mind. Cooper also spends a lot of time writing about Diana because the life and death of the late princess is a link to Cooper’s own mother, who died of cancer in 2004, when Cooper was a teenager. Cooper writes that her mother watched both the wedding and the funeral; dissecting those public ceremonies provides Cooper with an entrée into her real subject, which is grief.
There is trouble en route, however, because, as with Cooper’s analysis of Mailer’s satirical obituary, she misinterprets the famous, or infamous (depending on your point of view), tribute delivered in Westminster Abbey at Diana’s funeral by the princess’s brother, Charles, Earl Spencer. “Buckling under the pressure of Diana’s thorny kinship to the royal family, and likely under his own grief,” Cooper writes, “the Earl of Spencer gave a eulogy so politically correct that it erased the flesh-and-blood woman behind the tiara.” Politically correct? Cooper’s reading of Spencer’s tribute is at such variance with my own memory that I watched it again on YouTube.
Spencer, who is a godson of Elizabeth II and can trace his lineage back at least to the Stuarts, attacks the media and the upstart royal family—indeed, the eulogy created a froideur between Spencer and the Windsors that has taken nearly 20 years to thaw, and then only because of the peacekeeping efforts of Diana’s now grown sons, William and Harry. Watching the tribute again, I remembered the shocked hush as mourners absorbed the menace and rage underscoring the earl’s tribute as well as the spontaneous applause that reverberated within the walls of Westminster Abbey and among the crowds gathered outside, as he resumed his seat. This was not the decorous eulogy people were expecting at a royal funeral, but it certainly played to its worldwide audience.
By saying that his sister (the daughter of an earl, not a “woman plucked from much humbler beginnings” to fulfill the Cinderella fairy tale, as Cooper suggests) “proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic,” Spencer was censuring the royal family for stripping Diana of her title of Her Royal Highness as part of the divorce settlement from Prince Charles. By pointing out the irony of “a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age,” he was attacking the media for its reckless pursuit, a chase that ended with her death in an automobile crash. By “pledging” as the head of Diana’s “blood” family to protect her sons William and Harry from “a similar fate,” he was throwing down an ancestral gauntlet. I could go on, but here is my point: research matters. An author needs to get her facts correct if she wants readers to accept her thesis.
I wish an editor could have played devil’s advocate with Cooper because she does not need her critique of eulogy to make her point that grief can be intractable. “Losing my mom,” she writes, “I became broken—a fact I held with complete certitude. Learning to live with loss has also been learning to live with brokenness.” Cooper tries to argue that public rituals fall short in helping the bereaved mourn their loved ones. She asks rhetorically if a eulogy is meant for the living or the dead and then points out the obvious, that “grief, after all, afflicts only the living.”
Eulogies, obituaries, memorial services and funerals are all part of the public ritual of death. Mourning, which is personal, is about grief, an experience so discombobulating that it can crush you, as though a tsunami of emotion has reared up and walloped you. “Grief comes in waves,” Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, “paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” Not all deaths are equal; nor do they evoke the same amount of grief. Much depends on the loss and the circumstances. The passing of your aged grandparent and the sudden traumatic death of your child or your spouse cannot be balanced on the grief scales.
Cooper knows the difference between public ritual and private grief because she is still mourning her mother’s death more than a dozen years later. “You can’t set a deadline for grief,” she writes, “because loss has no temporal limit; the clock will never run out.” Eulogies did not help her mourn or bounce back—how could they?—which is why I find it puzzling that she tries so hard to link her mother’s death with the media hoopla around Diana’s funeral.
Much more interesting is the fact that Cooper’s profound and unrelenting grief led her to study the subject as an academic pursuit—however little she may have understood her motivation at the time. That deep dive into the literature of grief makes perfect sense to me, as I, too, undertake research and writing projects to comprehend the world and my place in it. (When I wrote about end of life and the right to die movement in Canada and around the world, I was surprised to find myself mourning once again my mother’s death 30 years earlier, as well as contemplating my own.)
Consequently, I admire the sections of Cooper’s book in which she writes about Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild (about her three-month hike through the Mojave Desert in the “literalization” of her grief following her mother’s death), Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (also about his mother) and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights (about the deaths of her husband and then her daughter, Quintana).
However, I object to Cooper’s “chafing against the nonchalance” with which Didion’s “immense wealth comes out in her prose.” Cooper criticizes Didion for pointing out that Quintana’s “privileged” upbringing, as the child of affluent and celebrated writers, did not protect her from an early and terrible death, or insulate Didion herself from a devastating loss. There is no hierarchy of grief, nor does grief lend itself to a critique of class and capital. The very rich may be different from you and me, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once explained, but they still bleed and they still mourn. Death is the great and final equalizer, and Cooper of all people should know that.