Monday, November 17, 2008

Is being mourned a privilege?

A question explored by the opening story on this week's episode of This American Life. (I think it's a repeat, but nonetheless worth listening to if you haven't heard it yet.)

The story explores what happens to people who live alone and then die alone.

We follow one woman as LA county tries to track down her relatives, friends, whoever knew her, in order that they might take care of her remains and inherit her property. At the end of the story, there is audio from a mass burial in LA county for who have died alone, which the story reports many major cities have one of each year.

The reporter declares that being mourned is a privilege, meant for those who endear themselves in life. But the mass burial seems to suggest otherwise. The chaplain performing the service says:
"Honored guests, on this day, we are gathered here for the annual mass burial, committing to this earthly resting place 1,918 brothers and sisters of human kind." Would the chaplain use language like "honored guests," and "brothers and sisters of human kind" if there wasn't some attempt to memorialize and sentimentalize the existence of these people?

I understand the reporter's point. Not everyone has a big funeral with a casket, flowers, crying relatives. It doesn't always happen. But he seems to miss that even when we don't know the person, we want ceremony for death. There may not be grief, but we see to feel compelled to mourn and mark the occasion at least in some way.

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