America’s Culture of Grief and Dying

Death in America does not come easily. That is, unless you are homeless or live on an Indian reservation or in one of the nation’s vast urban ghettos or are one of tens of millions of working poor with the kind of health insurance that features exceptions instead of coverage. In all these cases, likely few will note your passing. Losers don’t count in America, except at Fourth-of-July speeches by congressmen in tight races.

Anyone living in the United States must acclimatize to massive public displays of grief. Actually, “public displays of grief” is an inadequate term, for, apart from their Hollywood production values, they seem often to have a starkly political character.

But the subject is complex, and some of its ridiculous aspects reflect a society where beauty contests for five-year-olds in mascara and half-time football shows are cultural events. There is also a business aspect, for grief like everything in America serves the greater “entrepreneurial spirit.”

And there is, amidst all the mess and clutter, a sense of loneliness and anger that comes through, the echoes of life in a society of flourishing Social Darwinism. This last aspect will be the subject of a future essay.

Have you ever noticed the way Americans refer to any event involving death as a “tragedy?” This usage reflects the attitude of people who think they’ve banished death in their child-like enjoyment of measureless entitlements. Death must be really special, and so it is always a “tragedy.”

This word usage also reflects the political correctness that muffles all discussion of serious topics in America with a dense, fluffy coating of euphemism. It’s callous to talk honestly about something like death in America. Such talk may even qualify as being unpatriotic.

Now, “tragedy” has a very specific meaning, and it has nothing to do with accidents or unhappiness or even tears. It has to do with heroic attempts at something worthy despite the fates having ruled that one must fail. All sense of this powerful word is lost in contemporary America.

When first built, the Vietnam memorial was a remarkably dignified statement of grief, that seemed, with its low profile, simple design, and dark color, to speak to both the shame and loss of a pointless war. It was a miracle that anything so thoughtful came out of those years of insane violence.

But the dignity couldn’t last long. Clumps of statues — including figures carefully representing every identifiable marketing segment of the voter population, always excepting gays and Arabs –are springing up like toadstools after a period of warm rain. And, of course, there has to be an “information center.” Dignity is gradually giving way to the ambiance of a Niagara Falls gift shop.

Endless photographs of people rubbing names onto paper or touching the surface with tremulous fingers or leaving teddy bears, an entire small library of coffee-table books full of such pictures, have almost turned the wall into an official national how-to display center for grief.

The private acts of individuals grieving are, or should be, just that, private. Overly-photographed, overly-televised, overly-written-about acts are not private, they are public — and not the public of solemn ceremony, but the public of performance or advertising. Americans often no longer seem to understand this distinction, or, as with so many things, they want it both ways.

We also have a fake wall that tours the country on a truck, as well as several hundred local mini-walls and fake walls in cities, towns, and states that feature subsets of the names on the wall in Washington. I am sure there are people who imitate what they’ve seen repeated over and over in magazines, movies, and on television when the fake wall pays a visit at the local Wal-Mart parking lot. Tremulous fingers rub names on a plastic wall inside a truck.

To placate veterans of another hideous, pointless war, “the Korean conflict,” yet another wall was built –this one far less subtle or interesting, perhaps reflecting its being a rushed after-thought. This one unfortunately resembles a huge Russian-gangster tombstone with faces etched on dark granite. It comes with an army of life-size aluminum soldiers, “Joes,” (wasn’t that the name used by the cute little Korean lads always asking the generous Americans for chocolate in all the “B” movies about Korea?) grimly trudging along.

Soon we will have the grandest memorial of all –a gigantic pile of rock slabs and flags and mens’ and ladies’ rooms honoring World War II. The artist’s renderings suggest a bowling-tournament trophy built on the scale of Egypt’s Great Pyramid. This eyesore is to be assembled after fleets of Sikorsky helicopters drop the required eighteen million pounds of granite dead center of The Mall in Washington.

Support for this one came right from the grass roots, from the sale of t-shirts and baseball caps at Wal-Mart and smoky beer-socials at veterans’ posts. The resulting memorial has everything you’d expect short of beer-bellied figures in baseball caps and XXX t-shirts labeled “Proudly Made in the U.S.A.,” but, who knows, that may come over time.

Building ugly, expensive memorials is not limited to Washington. Nor is their subject matter limited to war. Walls of names at one time threatened to become as commonplace as fried-chicken outlets. Several airline crashes have their own versions.

Now, other conceptions have come into vogue, perhaps inspired by the massive aluminum “Joes” of the Korean-conflict memorial. For example, we have a memorial with scores of concrete posts down in a Florida swamp in memory of an airline crash.

If we were to build something like this for every victim of every crash (about 50,000 Americans die in automobile crashes alone each year), memorials would soon represent a serious pedestrian hazard, with people tripping over them or banging into them while talking on cell-phones.

But the strangeness of America’s public grief goes far beyond strange memorials. We have people who gather, in Busby Berkley re-creations of 1970 flower-child scenes, to throw flowers into the ocean years after the crash of an airliner or to light candles in bottles along miles of shore –not private, spontaneous acts of grieving, but choreographed displays, carefully documented on film to become spots on the evening news or the covers of magazines. Grieving here becomes an avenue to Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Being a victim –or part of the subset, survivor –opens new prospects for even the humblest. Victims are interviewed, photographed, appear on day-time talk shows, travel, have books written about them, and often go on lecture circuits. They may even have agents. It’s pretty heady stuff, and it sure beats what most people do for a living.

Indeed, there is an almost irresistible movement in America to raise being a victim to the status of a profession. It is already an occupation.

Soon one or two dozen of America’s countless weird little colleges –places like the Bull Connor Memorial College for Christian Gentlemen, or the New Jersey Turnpike Drive-Through College for the Performing Arts –will offer courses and even degrees in victimhood and survivorship. Why not? You can get a degree in circus in America. Or a degree in recreational leadership. Or a degree in nothing. Four-year B.V.s just seem too good a business opportunity to be missed.

Most people in the world, following the loss of a loved one, seek peace or solace or some other definite and recognizable state of being. But in America, people seek “closure.” The quest to find an acceptable personal meaning for this undefined, self-help-book term is the starting point for many a career as victim or survivor.

Closure may come quickly or never –it is a very flexible concept, allowing for short, meteoric careers or more sustained, long-term ones. Some captives of the American embassy in Iran went on for more than a decade talking and writing about little more than being on the receiving end of what American armed forces are doing to al Qaeda prisoners in Cuba.

For about a year or two, every relative of every person affected by the Oklahoma City bombing was interviewed so many times that every ounce of pathetic remembrance was drained from them. I used to wince as soon as I heard the lead-in for another of these on National Public Radio. There was this awful mental image of reporters squeezing the ragged, pulpy scraps of an exhausted lemon to get a last drop of juice.

Of course, there are Oklahoma City victim support groups and associations of every description plus survivors’ reunions and home-coming events. Grief counselors –another field for combining grief and profit in America –streamed in for weeks, jamming the town’s airport and bus station. And probably upwards of four hundred books were published by and about victims. Victims can spend the rest of their lives just reading about themselves.

Again in Oklahoma City, there is the unavoidable colossal memorial –this time, it consists of a fleet of giant, ugly chairs that look as though no one would ever have wanted to sit on one.

Undoubtedly, the terrorist attack on New York will top all previous grief-events for intensity of as well as endurance. This promises to go on for decades. We already have decals, official logos, baseball caps, t-shirts, shorts, lapel pins, books, videos, electronic games, and framed prints. It is well on its way to spawning a major new industry of survivor-souvenirs and memorabilia. And a stupendous memorial is almost certainly in the works. Perhaps Disney will do a plastic copy to minimize the diversion of tourists to New York.

Now, don’t misunderstand. When the terrorists attacked, America deserved the world’s sympathy and help, and she richly received it. But now, quite apart from its being well past time for a grossly self-indulgent people “to get a life,” the country’s brutal, stupid response –undoubtedly killing more innocent people than died in the attack itself and causing more misery than can be imagined in such a poor land –means she has relinquished further claims to the world’s sympathy.

It’s hard to sympathize with people who insist on the very special, precious, eternal nature of their own loss, while failing even to notice what they do to others. The moral values here closely resemble those of certain survivors or victims in Texas who parade outside the prison during an execution and excitedly talk to newsmen about the closure someone’s death is bringing to their lives.

Closure on this one is going to be right off the scale and probably will take generations. At the heart of the matter, as someone perceptively noted, is that Americans want to be liked and just cannot understand why someone dislikes them so much. They could easily learn why if they only would listen to others, but that will not happen.

Not listening is something of a national characteristic, and there’s almost a sense of pride attached to it. But then, Americans are proud of a lot of loopy things, like the fact that B-2 bombers are such neat-looking, high-tech planes — totally ignoring the fact that each copy costs them about forty top-quality, well-equipped high schools and requires maintenance for every hour’s flying equal to the total annual salaries of several teachers.

Besides, the entire workforce of government and corporate media labor mightily day and night to keep emotions on the boil. CNN stupidly blares from every office and public place much like the tele-screens in 1984 reporting approved details of Oceania’s endless war. Outsiders are certainly not welcome. At all. Unless, of course, they’re sending troops or money.

There is simply no perspective in any of this. Every four or five years, Americans killing Americans generate enough names to fill the Vietnam memorial in Washington. They murder the same number of people who died in the World Trade Center every few months.

Indeed, until a recent, not well-understood decline in American homicides, this figure was enough killings just-over every two years to fill a new wall. Enough killings to equal the carnage of the World Trade Center about every six weeks (just a few years ago, murders ran at 1800 a year for New York city alone). That rate of killing created the equivalent of ten Vietnam walls in the first couple of decades after the war –all filled with names of Americans killed by Americans.

In the same state where tens of millions were spent on the Oklahoma City memorial, there is no memorial to, nor even much memory of, twice as many black Americans slaughtered in Tulsa by insane white mobs and dumped into mass graves during a rampage in the 1920s. Even their property was stolen, just as was the case for Japanese-American internees of concentration camps about twenty years later. Nor is there a memorial in the state of Florida where a similar event occurred.

The colossal brutality of American slavery receives no adequate memorial. The re-creations of slave auctions at colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, actually help soften the image of slavery, but even these silly play-acts by summer students in gingham are quite recent. Slavery at virtually all national historic sites was simply ignored.

Imagine the real auction blocks with slaves stripped naked to display their muscles. Or, in the case of females, to show other assets of interest to isolated plantation owners. Imagine the chained slaves defecating like horses as they are driven to or from the market in gangs. Imagine the stinking holds of ships where they were packed like cord wood, with the substantial numbers who died or got sick in shipment being tossed overboard as they were discovered. America has never come to terms with the immensity of slavery. Where’s the huge and piteous memorial owing here?

Something like two thousand kids a year are killed by child abuse in the United States –that’s another wall full of names since the end of the war in Vietnam –all children. But there is no wall provided.

Of course, the deaths of children and the documented abuse of literally hundreds of thousands more every year, doesn’t stop “pro-life” folks from weeping over fetuses. Never mind all those real kids in pain and difficulty, never mind all the homeless, never mind all the runaways and child prostitutes, and never mind all the families whose lives are no more than emotional vacuums –they’re murdering fetuses!

The bizarre outer limits of grief culture were reached when dozens of Americans gathered in Washington to weep over stem cells. Most of the mourners likely wouldn’t be able to offer a coherent definition of a stem cell, but that fact didn’t get in the way of their much photographed and televised grief. It wouldn’t surprise me if these people announce a special memorial to stem cells killed in New York labs by the terrorist attack.

Now, the discovery that a few middle-class children accidentally were killed each year by air bags created waves of publicity and demands for change. And change in the regulations came quickly. But the murder of an American child every few hours (until the recent decline, but the number is still shameful), often at the hands of another child in urban ghettos, generated only a flat-line graph on the monitor of national concern.

Executions in the United States elicit sympathy from some, but the death penalty is popular. Candidate Bush saw no political risk in making sophomoric remarks about people waiting to be executed in Texas. And there’s a well-known picture of him smirking during a remark about the upcoming death of a particular inmate.

America is still the only country to have used a genuine “weapon of mass destruction.” Twice. On civilians. Not much grief is ever expressed over that.

Actually, quite the opposite, as we are reminded at every commemoration of Pearl Harbor that the few thousand Americans killed in an attack on a military base more than justified the mass incineration of women and children, hospitals and schools.

One especially sensitive American reader recently wrote to tell me that the entire Middle East should have been reduced to radioactive glass after the attack on the World Trade Center, and that I should just mind my own business about it. Needless to say, such expressions of grief are touching.

Three to four million Southeast Asian people perished in the insane orgy of killing Americans called the Vietnam War, three hundred thousand went missing, and, over the years since, thousands of farmers have been crippled or killed by the mines and unexploded bombs left behind. Not to mention the unholy effects of an ocean of Agent Orange bubbling and gurgling its way through the water tables of Southeast Asia.

And yet, a quarter-century after that holocaust, there were news stories about whether the Vietnamese were being sufficiently cooperative in finding sets of American remains. Remains that by that time and in that place were surely nothing more than dust, buttons, and dental fillings.

This was just one of many demeaning rituals the American establishment put the Vietnamese through because of their intense rage at losing the war. But this absurd ritual of digging for dust and buttons was possible and took meaning precisely because Washington could exploit strange American attitudes towards death –virtually encouraging the pitiful, hopeless belief by a portion of the public in the survival of missing men –to support a vicious policy.

Every three days, cigarettes kill as many Americans as died in the World Trade Center. Does the Congress take serious action to suppress or better control cigarette smoking? Not really. Other countries have been far more imaginative and aggressive.

America’s courageous legislators leave most of the responsibility to the courts with state lawsuits whose very settlements presume continued heavy smoking and whose proceeds often are not even spent on smoking or health.

Now compare the daily, genuine menace of cigarettes with the threat of terrorism.

Despite the World Trade Center, an American’s chances of dying from terror are just about equal to slipping on a banana in the bathtub during a thunderstorm. Almost nonexistent.

Here was one event involving three thousand people out of a population of two hundred and eighty million, one event spread over a period of many decades of America’s controversy-filled dominance in world affairs. And that one event involved a series of unrepeatable favorable circumstances for the perpetrators, circumstances which actually reflect on the same glorious legislators’ unwillingness to attend to business before by mandating such simple measures as locked cabins and more professional inspection staff.

Yet after that one event, the good old boys in Congress instantly passed police-state legislation, negated many Constitutional protections, launched an undeclared war, ignored the Geneva Conventions, and stand ready to spend countless billions more.

It truly does make a remarkable difference who dies and under what circumstances in America.

John Chuckman is a columnist with YellowTimes. He encourages your comments: jchuckman@YellowTimes.ORG

John Chuckman lives in Canada.