It was the summer of 1999, a few days after John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife Carolyn Bessette and her sister died in the plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard, and I was going to lunch with my editor in Tribeca. On the way to the restaurant, we passed the entry to the loft building where the golden couple had lived. In the doorway, there was a huge mound of teddy bears, anchored Mylar balloons and bouquets of flowers. The real flowers had wilted, and the artificial ones appeared dull and waxy under the city summer sun. “How they would have hated it,” my editor said, referring to Mr. Kennedy and Carolyn Bessette. The remark brought me up short: How they would have hated it. Yes, surely, with their known preference for privacy and their personal style, which didn’t include Mylar. Yes, they would have hated it. And I hated it, too. It was the first time I considered a display of grief tasteless. The heat-softened plastic flowers, the withering balloons and the sightless stares of the teddy bears made me lose my appetite and feel faint. Who had placed these tokens there? Certainly not anyone who really knew the Kennedys or Bessettes. These offerings had been left by persons who wished to be connected to this event, who felt elevated by presuming this closeness to a famous family.
When did the misappropriation of mourning begin? Grieving was once a dignified condition—with privacy respected, seclusion secured. If I wrack my now tragedy-strained brain, I think the truly massive funerary gifts from strangers began in shrink-wrapped earnest with the death of Princess Di. I recall a telescopic long shot: acres of cellophane-wrapped bouquets, spread, rotting on the ground, then, later, the tales of mourners wading into her memorial pool, clogged with more “offerings.”
On the home front, I can conjure another disturbing, precedent-setting scene: the death site of Susan Smith’s two little sons, the ramp into John D. Long Lake in Union County, S.C., where Ms. Smith drowned her toddlers in their car seats. I was stunned to see the greeting cards and teddy bears piling up on this death pier. Television news showed these “mourners”—parents whose outrage had led them first to a Toys “R” Us, and then to the dock. What did this accomplish for two small boys who died? Was this a contemporary and egalitarian update of the ancient Egyptian belief that possessions might accompany the dead pharaohs? Could the purple plush Barney travel into eternity with Ms. Smith’s sons, acting as a stuffed sentinel into the afterlife?
In a moment on live TV, a man who had driven some distance was shown, yanking his own child to the death scene. I wondered if this wasn’t more severe a lapse of taste than ordinary rubbernecking? Why would someone go out of his or her way to pay such “tribute?” Did they wake up and say, “Hey, let’s go to that ramp where the mother rolled the car with her children into the water?” I had the thought—perhaps unfair—that the father had some dark impulses of his own, and he was expunging these urges through sanctimonious voyeurism. I could not regard this man as much “better” than Ms. Smith, who had at first sniffled on national TV to “find whoever took my children and bring ’em back.” She uttered the usual tearful pleas with a tinny insincerity that matched the cheap toys laid to rest on the dock.
The only innocents in the Susan Smith drama were the dead boys. The mourners—save those who really knew the children—struck me as emotional accomplices after the fact. Who, after all, sees the news and thinks, “Now I must run out and buy teddy bears to place at the spot?”
Yet these forensic “presents,” teddy-bear and floral placements, are now commonplace. The line between personal and public has been erased, as a talk-show audience nation has pre-empted the lives and deaths of anyone in the media for whatever reason. The grisly pleasure taken in this behavior is barely disguised. When the now-famous runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks turned up alive in Georgia instead of in the predicted culvert, the townspeople seemed outraged: The public displays of mourning had already begun, and there was a community rehearsing for her funeral. Her fiancé had the grace to welcome her home, but most of the town looked enraged. Not, I might venture, at the wasted expense of searching for her corpse, but at the disappointment in not having a corpse for a final vigil. The accustomed rhythm—search, ribbons, corpse, teddy bears—had been disrupted.
In the past few days, I was also troubled by a radio interview with a woman who was commenting on the death of a high-school hero in Iraq. She was busy manufacturing yellow ribbons. She was so busy with those ribbons that the true loss of a young life seemed a loose end. The industry of ribboning had wrapped up the grief process and tied the final bow of justification on the war that killed the boy.
In contrast, Cindy Sheehan, the “Peace Mom” who refuses to accept Presidential platitudes, is demonstrating an earned, and genuine, way to mourn—and also to channel her inconsolable loss into a meaningful action against the forces that killed her son. She is the personification of true feeling, as opposed to sentimentality.
Now, as mass tragedy engulfs us on several fronts, the magnitude may wash away much of the falseness that has taken over as a national habit. In New Orleans, death became mundane: “Turn left at the corpse.” Perhaps this pragmatism more accurately depicts the state of involvement of most strangers on the scene. In a sunken mass grave, there is no way to float kitsch.
With so many to mourn, it may be time to return to appropriate response, and acknowledge that flowers, poems and gifts are the province of the bereaved. In our accelerating new Dark Age, while we grieve for so many lives lost, we may also mourn grief itself.