When someone we know dies we have broad guidelines for how to react, but when it’s a cultural icon we’ve never met it becomes less clear and the ‘grief police’ emerge
“A generation ago there were absolutely strict rules for mourning, and in this respect no-one who believed in the propriety of the conventions would have broken them. Today, every phase of life is being re-examined in the light of individual opinion, so that even mourning has become largely a question of personal feeling and the ultimate decision rests with the individual. However, there are still rules for what is correct; and if one is going to break rules successfully, one must first know them thoroughly” – Vogue, 1922 edition.
When I heard of David Bowie’s death yesterday I immediately messaged the friend I knew to be his biggest fan. I’m a Bowie fan too – but being a mere fan is not enough. He ranks among few artists – with Elvis, Michael Jackson – who commanded a top tier of fandom so passionate they felt (and continue to feel) an overwhelming connection to him. My friend is one of these. “I just didn’t think he’d die”, she replied.
I mean no disrespect to her when I say that’s an absurd thing to say. ‘Absurdity’ is literally that which can’t be framed by reason or sense. David Bowie understood absurdity – Ziggy Stardust was the human incarnation of an alien sent to inspire humanity before the apocalypse. If there’s to be absurdity about anyone it feels most appropriate for the creator of such an idea. Bowie also understood fame and used it to create worlds in which his fans lived with him outside of time, ageing and death. In a sense, the real man, dying of cancer as he was, is nothing to do with this. We can all rationalise that this is how fame and fandom works – but the feelings still don’t go away.
This was clear as I scanned my multiple social media timelines, saturated as they were with Bowie’s face, divided by a lightning bolt. Within an hour, three Facebook house party events I was on the list for this week had been edited to say they would now be “Bowie themed” and almost every status update was a reflection or organising something in response – one group of friends were planning to make a zine about their memories of Bowie, another were getting together to make illustrations based on his style.
“It shows how powerful the mere idea of grief for pop culture icons can be, and how narrow-minded casual dismissal of its authenticity is”
Social media is great for bringing people together to share – that’s its express purpose. Of course, we’ve all learned ways to stylise that sharing. Guile, wit and playfulness are usually the order of the day. But grief is the opposite of all of these – it’s the absence of a premeditated response, to be caught unawares and grossly unsure of how to express itself. Sincerity reigns – messy and gauche as it is. When it’s for someone you know – we have some broad guidelines: the closest to the bereaved must take precedence in determining how mourning is done, certain people must be visited or comforted. When it’s for a cultural icon who knew none of us, these don’t exist and there’s unease about response.
Grief and loss are experienced too individually to be codified beyond a few bare minimums. To those outside of it, its irrationality is obvious. Offline, when others are grieving we may make these judgements but we remain silent – knowing that we too have ‘been there’ and will be again. How odd, then, that online whenever there’s an outpouring there are points to be scored by those personally unmoved against those who exhibit feelings of sadness and loss? To sneer arrogantly at grief as a failure of social elegance – or worse, to dismiss it as a delusion or lie - is as cruel as it is hypocritical, given that grief will find us all at some stage. I didn’t cry yesterday but I did burst into tears when I heard Amy Winehouse died - which I wouldn’t have predicted beforehand and felt embarrassed by for years after.
The social media buzz phrase for this smug censure is “grief policing” – it’s also a classic arrogance of the digital generation to attribute brand new concepts to itself as if they never existed before the internet. Sophocles’ ancient tragedy Antigone – in which the heroine is literally forbidden by law to bury her dead and does anyway on pain of death – contains the concept literally. Grief policing: established 441B.C.
In all seriousness, from strict Victorian mourning dress codes to North Korean public wailing, mandating right and wrong ways of doing grief is a common way to try and bind that which simply cannot be bound. So too is the mockery of those mourning for a famous person they never met.
Popular imagination regarding the Stonewall Riots, which took place in the early hours of June 28 1969, has attributed significance to the fact rioting took place in the hours after Judy Garland’s funeral. Historical myth has solidified the idea that emotions were running high as a result of Garland’s death when police raids occurred. In fact, it’s most likely that this connection was made by a homophobic editorial in the Village Voice which dismissed the riots as a bunch of hysterical queers having a tantrum about the death of their camp icon. Either version of the story is fascinating, as the fusing of grief for Garland with the personal and political destinies of those who rioted shows how powerful the mere idea of grief for pop culture icons can be, and how narrow-minded casual dismissal of its authenticity is.
On Facebook, I’m part of a secret group called The Princess Diana Photographic Tribute Group – its sole purpose is for members to post the tackiest, most sentimental images of Diana: sometimes she’s photoshopped into images with William and Kate, sometimes she has a tin foil halo. Sarcasm is the order of the day. The group – of people my age who remember her but faintly - mocks the gaudy and clumsy earnestness of nostalgic public grieving that’s now twenty years out of date. It’s true: without the veil of grief much of its aesthetics are inelegant. But, as footage of Christopher Hitchens being publically berated by members of the public for criticising her at the time shows, these sentiments too were once viscerally real for many.
The clumsiness of loss and grief will always be judged as a reflex – everyone is judgemental about most things at times - let’s be honest. I confess I’ve eyerolled internally at funerals where cans of beer are tearfully poured on a coffin in tribute. It’s not my way, not my taste but, truthfully, it’s no better or worse a way to acknowledge death than anything I could come up with. We may all look back on things we’ve done and said in grief and cringe – time refocuses our aesthetic lens – but truly there’s little to feel superior about if you’re not the one currently grieving.