But even in this tragic paradox we have seen considerable movement in the past thirty years toward the cracking open of the American heart. One is the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial (designed ironically by an Asian-American woman), our first shrine that has not glorified war. It has served two primary purposes. The first is as a focal point for the national sense of sorrow for the lives wasted in that war, despite the efforts of politicians to put Vietnam behind us.
Secondly, in its actual design, sinking implacably into the earth, it subtly reminds us of our collective responsibility to the dead and of the knowledge that can be found in the dark earth that we will all share eventually. “The wall coaxes everyone into the same ritual of descent,” writes Michael Ventura, “a ritual that the psyche can’t help but recognize.” The polished black marble surface reflects the viewer’s face behind the inscribed names, as if the viewer himself were in the land of the dead, surrounded by those names – each of them an individual who fell at a specific time – looking back into his own eyes. The veil between the worlds is very thin here.
In her novel Beloved Toni Morrison used the phrase “disremembered past” to describe that which is neither remembered nor forgotten, but is haunting the living as a ghost. The path to healing, for the soul and for the soul of the culture, goes through the recovery of memory – inviting the return of that which has been repressed – rather than through forgetting. We have a useful metaphor in the image of proper burial of the war dead. When the living acknowledge the reality of death in a superficial manner, then the “corpses” of a life end up only getting “covered over,” rather than properly buried.
But authentic grief rituals can align the ego’s intention for closure with the deeper intentions of the unconscious. Let’s consider myth again. This is depicted when Priam risks his life to beg Achilles for Hector’s body. For proper burial to occur, the king must confront both the corpse and the person – Achilles – who has killed it. Acceptance of the facts at this level leads to real closure. And grieving together, as Priam and Achilles do, brings people, even enemies, together, if only briefly.
The task is to remember and grieve, rather than to constantly re-enact the trauma. Psychologist Jonathan Shay stresses that the best treatment for war veterans is “communalization” of the trauma; telling one’s story in the safe container of a trusted community can “rebuild the ruins of character.” But for such healing to occur, he writes, “…a listener must be ready to experience some of the terror, grief and rage that the victim did. This is one meaning, after all, of the word compassion.” And this is precisely what Priam and Achilles share with each other.
The wound leads to the gift: the need for making meaningful narrative out of trauma leads to the search for – and the risk of – authentic community. From this perspective, writes Shay, both the veteran community and the greater public for whom they have suffered should meet together
…face to face in daylight, and listen, and watch, and weep, just as citizen-soldiers of ancient Athens did in the theater at the foot of the Acropolis. We need a modern equivalent of Athenian tragedy.
A second profoundly important phenomenon has been the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which regularly travels around the country.
It brings the qualities of beauty and diversity with the thousands of separately designed segments; and it counters the right-wing attack on sexual minorities, by forcing the viewer to contemplate the massive numbers of actual, individual lives that were valued and loved by others.
A third factor is the revival on American soil of indigenous mourning rites. The huge influx of Latinos into the country in the last thirty years has brought with it two aspects of Latin American, especially Mexican, culture that have begun to profoundly influence Anglo-Saxon attitudes toward death and mourning. One is the tradition of erecting small roadside shrines (“descansos”) of flowers, pictures and personal mementoes at the sights of car accidents.
The new custom has spread to inner cities in all parts of the country, where young people especially seem to be intuiting – or remembering – very old ritual forms of dealing with the constant possibility of violent death.
Black people have also brought back the African tradition of pouring libations at the gravesite; only now the libations are poured in the city itself. An Oakland policeman occasionally saw such shrines in the 1980’s, but now, “every time there’s a murder, you see one.” By 2001, it seemed perfectly appropriate that images should appear across the media of spontaneous shrines in New York City for the victims of the 9-11 tragedy.
In addition to such stationary shrines, the past decade has seen the appearance of moveable shrines: the “R.I.P.” t-shirt phenomenon. This is another form of daily public mourning in the inner cities, in which family and friends wear t-shirts emblazoned with pictures of murdered young people, often with the letters “R.I.P.” Such displays are both public expressions of grief as well as a protest against the anonymity of urban violence.
This revival of old forms reflects both an innate moral intelligence – the voice of the indigenous soul – in people who have long been denied other options in American Puritan culture, as well as a kind of permissiveness. People are finally getting the message that it is not a shameful act to mourn in public. In Los Angeles Black and Latino activists have taken this insight to the next level with grief processions that cross the boundaries of gang territories and chant for peace wherever a young person has been killed. Such rituals identify the common losses felt throughout the community and lead to the possibility of reconciliation.
Another Latino influence is the revival of the Days of the Dead – Los Dias de los Muertos – which occur at approximately the same time as Halloween. The secular children’s holiday has become a major festival of consumption, with dozens of theme parks and annual spending of 4-6 billion dollars. Halloween has grown so big that it has its own Internet search engines. Along with horror movies (and their curious theme of the return of the dead), writes David Skal, Halloween gives us a space “where death reigns triumphant but no one ever has to grieve.”
But behind Halloween lie the Catholic holidays of All-Saint’s Day and All-Soul’s Day, and behind them lies the far older Celtic New Year, Samhain, the point at which the light half of the year changes into the dark half on November first. These events reflect the common indigenous belief that at certain times of the year the veil between the worlds briefly becomes very thin and the spirits of the dead return, to be fed by the living. The Romans held their Days of the Dead in February, the Greeks on five Saturdays spread across the year. The Germanic tribes did so at Yule time, the Japanese and Aztecs in August. Like the Celts, the Egyptians celebrated theirs on November first. The Catholic Church, acknowledging that it could never stamp out the pagan tradition, established November 1st as All Saints’ Day in the eighth century and All Soul’s Day (November 2nd) in the tenth.
Spanish conquerors brought their traditions to the New World, where they fused with indigenous customs, moving the Aztec holiday to November. The Mexican tradition involves the construction of home altars (ofrendas), “dinners for the dead” (on the assumption that it is better to feed the dead with food they loved when they were alive than to feed them with more death), and all-night graveyard vigils. In the San Francisco area in particular it has lead to an annual public procession involving thousands of people as well as countless art exhibits and other rituals that combine mourning with humorous, imaginative confrontation with the reality of death.
The African imagination emphasizes the importance of mourning in a natural setting. Nature, as the dwelling place of ancestral spirits who have registered every harmful thing done to the Earth, is seen as “a vast field of grief.” Thus nature is the place where the real work of healing – balancing the dark and light aspects of the world – takes place. Many indigenous grief rituals — and contemporary re-creations — involve vocalizing and symbolically expelling emotions that are considered toxic if held inside. But such toxins, like the end products of digestion, are believed to be nutritious to the spirits of the Earth, which will gladly absorb and eventually transform and recycle them.
In the American climate of denial, however, it is difficult to achieve ceremonies of communal mourning, particularly in the case of the war in Iraq. President Bush has not appeared at a single funeral for a slain soldier, and the corporate media, consistent with the American tradition of denying death, generally refuse to show images of their coffins.
In response, many people have turned to the Internet to share their grief, creating many websites that memorialize the fallen soldiers. These sites include portraits of the dead and allow visitors to add their own memorial statements; thus they serve as a kind of electronic “wall” on the model of the Vietnam Memorial. However, these flag-bedecked websites usually carry the patriotic theme of sacrifice in the name of freedom.
This is unfortunate, and not simply for political reasons. Justifying the harsh reality of death in terms of any ideology is a subtle means of denial, and thus it subverts the possibility of real closure.
But such attempts at mourning can reveal the underlying myths to us. They refer to the original willing sacrifices of Abraham/Isaac and God/Christ for the sins of the world. But they also gather their energy from a shadow version of those stories, which is more fundamental to patriarchal civilization: the killing of the children. As a face of the divine, Christ re-enacts the annual death of the world, like Dionysus and Osiris before him. But the human Jesus, like Isaac before him, asks his father why he has forsaken him and whether there is any meaning whatsoever in this murder. There is no closure, and the crimes of the fathers are passed on to the sons.
But the “real” thing continues to bubble up from the margins of American culture – those areas where the indigenous soul still has a home. The African imagination of ritual closure has long taken root in the Jazz funerals of New Orleans. The traditional funeral parade has two sections: the “first line,” consists of the grand marshals (otherwise known as ritual elders), musicians, the family of the deceased, and pallbearers; the “second line” is local people who follow the mourners.
After the church service the procession moves to the cemetery, while the band plays slow hymns and dirges. This is the first stage of the universal, three-part ritual format. The second stage is the actual internment of the deceased at the cemetery, where both the dead and the living briefly share liminal space, outside of time. The third stage is the procession home. Now the second line takes over and the overall spirit changes from melancholy to joyful celebration. The band shifts into high-spirited tunes, and the mourners change from their earlier, slow cadence into wild dancing, or “second lining.” The return to the neighborhood becomes a celebration of the life of the deceased; and in making ritual closure with the dead the mourners achieve re-integration into their community.
If we combine two concepts – Greek Tragedy and New Orleans Funerals – the implications for the healing of America are simply enormous. Imagine mass public rituals attended by the citizenry and political leaders, in which warriors and civilians, rich and poor, women and men, white and dark, gay and straight, healthy and disabled and mad and “normal” confront the impossible paradoxes and crimes of our history and suffer together.
Can we imagine an American President standing at the center of this container, begging forgiveness for his country from a descendent of a slave? Can we imagine the community pouring out grief for all those who died as soldiers, victims and activists, and even for the animals and the forests that once covered the entire continent? Can we imagine the sense of relief at having finally shed tears together as a mosaic of uncommon peoples sharing this land – and the gratitude bordering on ecstasy with which an entire community dances the “second line” on its way back home?
Ultimately, the ritual transformation of the American denial of death and grieving will require the work of individuals who feel a calling for this work. We may discover a new meaning of the idea of the scapegoat – that ancient image of sacrifice for the sins of the community. The new scapegoat would commit to a life of intentional awareness and facilitation of mourning of the tragic side of life without resorting to any easy form of resolution.
But rather than dying for the world like a Christ, he or she would live all the more fully for it, like a Bodhisattva. There is much work to be done in facilitating the emergence of public rituals of mourning. And certain individuals will need to hear and heed the call – consciously – to become, like Pentheus (in The Bacchae by Euripides) the boy-king whose name means “man of sorrows…acquainted with grief.”
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