you’ve put the living underground and kept the dead up here
that is so wrong
that is so wrong
— Anne Carson, Antigonick, 2012
On 19 March, I read an article in the New York Times about the bodies in Bergamo, about funerals conducted without mourners, about doctors forced to let patients die to spare ventilators for those who stood a better chance of survival. Sitting in London watching the pandemic unfold in Italy, knowing we were a few short weeks behind, I was suspended in a state of vertiginous horror. The fear was primal, not only of death but of the possibility that even the most fundamental threads of the social fabric could be rent, that we would be in freefall, with nothing to hold on to. I thought of myself as someone who knew capitalism was a barbarous, cynical system, impervious to suffering, despite the veneer that liberal democracies smeared over their brute economic imperatives. But, of course, some part of me believed that some things — the individual, death, funerals, mourning — were sacred, even under capitalism. Aren’t these the illusions that make life bearable?
Many anthropologists suggest that mourning is the closest thing we can find to a universal, that death rites, though their forms differ, are practised by all peoples. I’ve always been moved by the similarities between mourning rituals across cultures. Hindus, Jews, some Christians and no doubt many others gather in the home of the dead for a period of longer than a week and shorter than two. Whether people sing, cry, pray, or chant, this time is sacred, ritualized, and unfolds in domestic space. In Hinduism, the religious tradition I know best, this time is one in which the chief mourners have little choice but to give themselves over to the wider community, who arrive with white sheets for the floor, with tea for the kitchen, with flowers to garland a photograph of the dead. These practices impose a structure, firm but gentle, at a time in which one’s own capacity to make decisions is almost always impaired. One need not begin from religious conviction to find solace, even beauty, in this process. Indeed, for me, the most striking thing is precisely how human mourning rituals feel, how intricately they respond to the experience of loss. They don’t feel divinely ordained but like the ordinary work of human hands, like a living storehouse of collective wisdom.
In April, my aunt died. Hansa Rajani— Hansamasi—had been born with a learning disability, and as an adult was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She had several physical health conditions. She spoke little English. In the weeks leading up to her death, her sisters tried to explain why they could not visit, but she still waited. My mum sent a parcel of gifts that would arrive too late. At the mercy of a government whose architect, Dominic Cummings, professed a commitment to eugenics, the measures that could have been put in place to protect her from a deadly virus were deemed unnecessary. She was alone in hospital, unable to advocate for herself, to say how she felt or what she needed, without family or a familiar carer. In a country rife with the hatred of the old, weak, sick or different, her life was viewed as dispensable. But not to us. Hansamasi was dealt a tough hand in life, but she fought like hell to live. She was smart and cheeky and understood more than she let on. She told you off if you upset her and she didn’t suffer fools. She was utterly, gloriously herself in a way that few of us achieve. She had a deep love of family. We would have celebrated her seventieth birthday last June.
As I write this, I hesitate — backspace, rewrite, backspace, rewrite — because politicians have cheapened the idea that everyone is valuable, loved, a person with family, thoughts, connections, friends, idiosyncrasies and dreams.They rehearse this idea—always remembering to say ‘unfortunately’, ‘sadly’, ‘tragically’ — and then make decisions that treat these families, thoughts, connections, friends, idiosyncrasies and dreams like rubbish to be discarded. But our people are not nothing. And the careful, intricate, committed rituals of mourning are one of the ways in which we insist on the value of life.
‘For me, the most striking thing is precisely how human mourning rituals feel, how intricately they respond to the experience of loss’
Unable to gather together in person, my family – like many others I’ve spoken to since — attempted to rebuild a structure online to hold our grief. Every night for two weeks, we met on Zoom, gathering four generations across three continents to talk, pray and sing. At first we tried to sing together, but in the fractional delays, the glitches and warps of digital connections, our voices scattered and clashed. We quickly constructed a new way, with an order of service sent out on WhatsApp during the day, so we knew who would sing which bhajan or recite which prayer, and who would share a memory. In person, these rituals unfold more organically, with knowledge passed on through repetition and observation rather than being codified or explained. Usually, as the evening draws to a close, we drink tea and chat, and it feels possible to laugh again, to tell stories, to exhale. Despite the loss of these more relaxed moments of connection, I’m grateful for our new makeshift rituals, especially as so many others have had to bear their grief alone, unable to access even the limited connection afforded by these new technologies.
The funeral, however, was far more difficult to reimagine. We were used to conducting active and tactile funeral rites. The process of anointing the body can be confrontational, scary even, unused as we are to thinking about death. Under late capitalism, secular death rites are often focused on the individual — on celebrating the specifics of their life — so they tend to be driven by narrative rather than ritual, by individuality rather than by universal processes. In contrast, religious death rites are often conducted in the same way regardless of who has died. They are also active and embodied processes, and the fear that their tactility induces in mourners is also what makes these rites so powerful; the experience of terror, horror, disgust is one that feels equal to the circumstance. In thinking about the rituals surrounding death, I find myself drawn back to Antigone — the paradigmatic figure of frustrated mourning. Her refusal to adhere to Creon’s edict against burying her brother, despite her own life hanging in the balance, evidences the force of her desire to conduct proper death rites. As Antigone insists, these ‘unwritten, unshakeable’ traditions are alive. Being unable to observe them can feel like a death of its own.
According to Freud, a loss that is not mourned becomes melancholia. We might lose a person and, in being unable to accept the loss, we misrecognize the source of our despair, turning against our own egos and, subsequently, away from the world. The process of mourning, then, is one in which we come to build a bridge between the world of the living and the dead, to incorporate the latter into our sense of self, so as to make living with their absence possible. Over the past few months, I have had countless dreams about funerals. In many of them, some peculiar form of social distancing is being observed; one took place in a football ground and the mourners stood in the dugouts, our voices rising in prayer over the pitch. Sometimes I am late and cold and searching in vain for a lost book of matches. Often I don’t know whose funeral I am attending; if I do, it is someone long since passed or alive and well. It is as though my unconscious is attempting to complete something unfinished: to do the work of mourning but without the structures that usually make that possible.
In his writing on melancholia, Freud is theorizing an internal process, and the loss is often one of which we are not consciously aware. In the pandemic, the conscious, active process of mourning has been cut short or transformed beyond recognition, and we’re yet to develop an understanding of the psychological impact of this change. But after Hansamasi’s death, I began to think about the experience of curtailed funerary rites as having profound political consequences as well as being the source of deep personal distress.
While it is a biomedical necessity that funerals are prevented in order to curb the spread of the virus, there are other ways in which the scale of the loss could be acknowledged. In July, a national memorial service was held in Spain; more recently, in the USA on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, he led a service for the 400,000 US Covid victims to date. While there is a risk in these events of affirming nationalist sentiments, they nonetheless make grief collective and public. Perhaps most importantly, they acknowledge the scale of the loss.This happened. In the UK, however, a silent edict against public mourning is being enforced through subterfuge, trivialization and distraction. The prime minister has not met with grieving families; there has been no public memorial. The daily death tolls are announced in the same news- cycle drip feed as information about furlough or travel restrictions. There is no minute’s silence, no reading out of names. This is less the treatment of the dead as numbers and more the use of numbers as a distraction from the dead. In the face of this weaponized distraction, we try to come up with fixed points of comparison to hold the dead in our minds: four planes packed with people falling from the sky; the Titanic sinking every day; a stadium of the dead. But with each analogy, we must confront the fact that even if it were a ship, a plane, a stadium, even then, perhaps an authoritarian government would shrug their shoulders, lie and conceal, prevaricate and posture, and even brag, shamelessly, about their success.
In Antigone, of course, the pathologies are political too. The edict against mourning Polynices’ death is both evidence of political dysfunction— of a jealous and despotic king who rules against the natural order—and a harbinger of further doom. In the play, two orders clash: the law and the law; the law of men and divine law. This clash is why theorists have turned to the play again and again to think about law, about gender, about citizenship and about power. In her witty and idiosyncratic translation, Anne Carson gently mocks these readings of Antigone as political allegory, name checking Hegel, Lacan, Judith Butler, George Eliot, Brecht and Žižek within the first two pages. My own reading of the play over the past year has been stuck in the terrain of the literal. I can’t help but read the character of Antigone psychologically — as someone trying to love her messed-up family under the heel of a cruel and cynical regime.
‘The careful, intricate, committed rituals of mourning are one of the ways in which we insist on the value of life.’
The early days of the pandemic taking hold in the UK were a terrible, shimmering nightmare. For many of us, the days were emptied of the clutter of everyday life, of the commute and the meetings, and into this space broke a flood of fear. In this suspended time, students comforted grieving teachers, clients saw their therapists’ eyes fill with tears on their computer screens, strangers sent their condolences to the bereft on Twitter, and the whole cold shining edifice of professional life, the boundaries between strangers, and the careful gradations of intimacy and distance seemed to blur and swim in our collective vision. Death, or the threat of death, was omnipresent and, for a very short time — just as the first, too-late lockdown was announced — it felt possible to acknowledge the terror this brought. But as the death count rose, it felt like the space for grief contracted. As more people died, the less we were able to look at them. I began to fantasize about more explicit modes of violence that would make my fury visible. I imagined men with guns at the door, the familiar iconography of state murder, because it seemed like that was a situation in which one could intervene. I considered dousing myself in petrol and lighting a match in front of the Houses of Parliament.
Almost a year on, no political movement has emerged to make visible or contest the social murder that continues to claim thousands of lives every week.Without such a movement we stand little chance of changing the conditions of who lives and who dies and how.We are in a bind: without confronting the scale of death, we cannot build a movement; without a movement, we cannot make these deaths visible in a political system designed to hide the bodies.The left has for too long lived by American labour organizer Joe Hill’s slogan, ‘Don’t mourn, organize!’ But our most powerful movements for justice always do both.Think of the monthly silent walks organized by Grenfell United, in which the wider community marches alongside the survivors of the fire, refusing to follow the lead of the government, whose every action treats the residents of North Kensington as an inconvenience.The history of struggle is a history of people mourning the loss of those they did not personally know. Think of Southall in 1979, when 8,000 people paid their respects at Blair Peach’s open coffin at the Dominion Cinema. The teacher was killed after being struck on the head during an anti-fascist demonstration outside Southall Town Hall. He had put his body on the line to protect the community in Southall; in turn, they mourned him as a son. Think of the global uprising following the assassination of George Floyd. Look at the movement against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, unfolding in the wake of the death of Sarah Everard and attempts by the police to prevent a vigil in her memory.These movements embody Douglas Crimp’s insistence, in his essay on the Aids epidemic, that we need mourning and militancy.
Authoritarian regimes know all too well the power of collective grief. Following the brutal rape, assault and subsequent death of a Dalit teenager in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, in September 2020, the authorities cremated her body against the wishes of her family. As Brahma Prakash explains:
This decision not to allow the family to grieve at the woman’s last rites was not a lapse. It conveyed a profound meaning. It was a clear sign of the insecurity of the state. It was a sign that the young woman had achieved martyrdom. But it was an inconvenient martyrdom. It was not the kind of martyrdom that could be televised to rally the nation’s collective conscience. It was a death the authorities would rather have ignored.
We have seen similar events in the UK. When darkness fell on Clapham Common on 13th March at the forbidden vigil for Sarah Everard, police stormed the bandstand where women were gathered, attempting to shut down the event. As photographs emerged of women in cuffs being dragged across the Common, the political force of suppressed mourning took on a new clarity.When we wish to make injustice visible, we fill up city squares, shut down roads, block bridges. Now, when public space itself has become muted and paranoid, we need to build a new architecture, of life and of protest, which makes space for, rather than denies, the omnipresence of grief. Mourning is a bridge between the living and the dead. If we want to change the conditions of life, it’s a bridge we must stand on together. ◊