Mourning Becomes Electric

The rituals of grief can still bring a fragmented audience together

Fragmented. Few words are used more often to describe the media environment today. People disappear into their iPods, iPhones, BlackBerrys, Kindles, and laptops. They tweet, blog, Facebook, podcast, and wend their way through their favorite cultural and political sites. In short, they manufacture their own media bubbles and seem to live in separate universes.

Nonetheless, some iconic events win the attention of tens of millions of us. These events can be about celebration, trauma, or remembrance; joyful or tragic, they bring us together—at least for a few hours or a few days.

Some of these events are about mourning. Michael Jackson’s memorial service gathered 31 million viewers in the U.S. alone and an estimated one billion viewers worldwide (although the press started to report on “the one-billion strong” before the funeral even happened). Global Web traffic was at least 19 percent above normal; alone reported 9.7 million live video streams, and live commenting was popular on social-networking sites, especially on Facebook, which partnered with CNN for the event.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s body traveled seventy miles from the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston so that people could pay him respect not only virtually but also in person. And the broadcast funeral mass was about bringing everybody together—with a particular emphasis on bipartisan collective mourning. Edward Kennedy Jr. famously mentioned that his father taught him “some of life’s harder lessons, such as how to like Republicans.”

Walter Cronkite’s death on July 17 may have been an occasion to memorialize the era of television as national hearth in the new age of fragmentation, but it was also testimony to the endurance of collective ritual in the age of micro-hearths. Although Cronkite’s funeral did not become a Michael Jackson-sized media event, his death evoked the collective remembrance of his iconic reporting, particularly on the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, and the early hits and misses of the U.S. space program.

“Till death do us join: media, mourning rituals and the sacred centre of the society,” a paper published in the January 2009 Media, Culture & Society, gives mediatized mourning rituals a Finnish context. The authors, Mervi Pantti (Amsterdam School of Communications Research) and Johanna Sumiala (Academy of Finland/University of Helsinki) examine the changing media representation of seven Finnish national tragedies from the 1950s to the 2000s based on newsreels and public-broadcast news. The events range from a fire at a home for children in 1954 to police murders in 1997 and a bus accident in 2004. In the early examples, the media portrayed the mourners as a “passive mass,” while in the 1997 and 2004 tragedies, ordinary people became more active, bringing flowers to the accident site or visiting the scene to grieve. Journalists also have become more active during mourning rituals. Partly because of technological limitations, in the distant past, coverage was often limited to one steady camera shot and a single narrator. Now the media’s presentation of rituals is highly dramatized to heighten emotion.

The authors rightly hold that there is an inherent similarity among the events they examine: “the essence of tragedy is human loss.” But there are differences, too. Mourning rituals function differently for deaths caused by accidents (in which unanswerable questions and religious solace are evoked) and murders (in which, additionally, the breach of basic community rules is lamented). The differences in the media presentation of these mourning rituals arise from both technological changes that enable television to cover stories more flexibly and from more angles, and cultural changes that have blurred the boundaries of public and private, opening up to the media activities once judged too intimate for the public gaze.

The authors emphasize that mediatized religious and nonreligious mourning rituals still have important cohesive roles for societies. Neither television nor God seem to have passed away in the Twitter era. Today’s media environment, fragmented as it is, remains a source of community, national, and even global solidarity.

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Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.