American Way of Death Takes On New Symbols

Politicians and others capitalize on it and use it, but the American Death Cult is a folk phenomenon. It’s a syncretic rite taking from this and that, not unlike a bird’s nest which contains odd bits of things made by human hands that don’t seem to go together, but do. There is a bit of Wal-Mart in the candleholders and the picture frames, a bit of our incorrigible celebrity worship, a bit of voodoo in the presence of stuffed animals and photographs.

The roots of the American Death Cult must go further back in time, but it seems to me that with the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., it began to evolve into something different. After the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal office building, there was a profusion of flowers on the sidewalks, notes and letters pinned on fences, trinkets which belonged to the dead, candles, people carrying photographs of the deceased.

But the fullest celebration of the rites of the American Death Cult has been at the World Trade Center, where uncounted hours and what must be huge sums have been devoted to identifying the tiniest remains, something only now possible with the perfection of DNA techniques.

Until the 1600’s, Christians had scant interest in the bodies of their dead, let alone the dismembered remains. For centuries, they were buried without marker or memorial unless the deceased were a king, a mighty personage, a baron, a general or a pope. Hamlet finds his friend Yorick’s skull when it pops out of the charnel-house plot, where bodies were indiscriminately buried. The practice of giving ordinary people a plot and marker-that is, their own private room through eternity-seems to have arisen about the time the middle class, which cherished its privacy, came into being. The thought of moldering into dust in close proximity to persons one had not been properly introduced to offended Euro-American middle-class people, who would ultimately invent the term “personal space.” The Victorians made mortuary embellishments a specialty, and made graveyards so pretty that many became parks where the living went for picnics, taking their rest in proximity to the dead.

The American Death Cult’s respect for the smallest remains may have arisen out of the Vietnam War and the decades-long search for the remains of missing American servicemen. The ancient Greeks would declare a truce after a battle so that both sides could retrieve the bodies of their fallen warriors, and such truces have been intermittently declared ever since, but the idea of getting back literally every part of every soldier is a new one. In the past, we were content to mark down some of the fatalities as missing in action and get along to the next war. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is testimony to past practice, but now there are to be no unknown soldiers or civilians. Every last piece of bone and flesh is to be found, though the American Death Cult does not yet include preserving the physical parts, as once was done with the remains of saints, which were distributed to different churches to be displayed and revered.

In the standard brand religions, one of the functions of funeral rites is to bring an end to mourning, so that the living may move on. With the American Death Cult, the funeral is never over, the dead never depart. The vast and elaborate outpouring on the anniversary of the crime of Sept. 11 was so different, as several writers have pointed out, from the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, which saw President Roosevelt quietly at his desk as the nation, in factories and foxholes, struggled against the foe.

The anniversary Death Cult celebration in New York was attended by some of the relatives of the Oklahoma City bombings, as well as those who had lost people in other disasters and those who had no close connection but needed to hold a candle, hug, place a doll or stuffed animal against a fence, hold hands, sing or speak the ritual language of Cult bereavement. It may be that the Cult postpones or even denies the finality of death, and that by gathering in large numbers while the candles flicker and the personal mementos are left behind, the bereaved feel that they have detained the spirits of the dead, kept them from taking the final journey.

Or it may be that the Death Cult endows the loss of life with meaning. The W.T.C. disaster is a great crime, but it is also, taken from a different perspective, an idiotic, random event, not unlike the meaningless death of thousands or millions from a meteor strike. We’re so puny, and every so often we get wiped out by a thick-soled boot which comes out of nowhere to squash us. The Death Cult may give meaning to meaninglessness. The victims are sometimes called heroes-and, of course, some were-but most were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, people who suffered death for no damn good reason at all. And that may be, as they like to say, unacceptable-so unacceptable that it must be ritually denied.

Conversely, these mass, ritual comings-together may spring from the fearful convulsion arising from every human’s recognition of the life-and-death circle, of the inevitability of individual extinction. The ordinary terror of life and death may be reinforced by terrorism itself, by vast killings, by sudden death on a large scale. The hugging, the holding of hands, the flickering of candles may take people to the littoral of the sea of common consciousness, where life endures after the individual has perished.

The ministers who celebrate Death Cult rituals are many and motley, with the most persistent being the grief counselors. Writing in the Oct. 22, 2001, Slate , Jody Allen chanced to observe that, “By 1997, the year of Princess Diana’s death … more than 1,600 grief counselors and services were listed in a new National Directory of Bereavement Support, colleges were offering majors in death and grief, and the 2,000-member Association for Death Education and Counseling welcomed an international crowd at its annual conference …. While grief-sharing Web sites … were primarily of the chat-room variety, the industry’s growing sophistication is evidenced by the subsequent proliferation of professionally sponsored Web sites ready to respond to solace-seekers in the wake of 9/11. (See, for example, Freedom From Fear, the Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Alliance, representing four national organizations, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the Madison Institute of Medicine.) The intensity of media attention to the 9/11 attacks will itself provide huge momentum to the grief industry. EAPs (employee assistance programs) have proliferated in corporations nationwide since the attacks. Moreover, employers expect worker participation to increase even absent further large-scale terrorist atrocities.”

Politicians of every stripe-war hawks, jingoes, frightening religionists pushing the nostrums of intolerance-infiltrate American Death Cult ceremonies, but folk religion has always been a fat feeding place for charlatanism and mass exploitation. In any case, for a while at least, it’s here to stay. Let’s hope some good comes of it.

American Way of Death Takes On New Symbols