Yes, I know. I'm being unforgivably flippant about the sad demise of Michael Jackson – and yes – I do have several of his songs on my i-Pod, including his eloquent plea for racial harmony Black Or White (that rare thing, an uplifting message song that is also a successful piece of danceable pop). He was indeed a pop genius, flawed like most geniuses, but now his name will forever be uttered in the same breath as those other 20th century superstars, Chaplin, Presley and Lennon. How tragic that a handsome and talented black man should end up ravaged by too much plastic surgery, looking like a cross between Max Wall and Edvard Munch's painting, The Scream. I'm truly sorry he is dead, but – on the plus side – at least there'll never be another Earth Song.
However, the purpose of this post is not to discuss Michael Jackson, but to muse upon public displays of grief and mourning from a non-religious (and gay) perspective.
At the end of 2006, I remember going to see the film Evita, starring Madonna, and contemplating the public scenes of mourning that greeted the death of President Peron's wife in 1952, a woman who had somehow connected with – and engaged the loyalty and affections of – the ordinary people of Argentina. What event, I wondered, might cause a similar public outpouring of grief among my own disparate and apparently indifferent fellow countrymen, here in Britain? Just 8 months later, that question was unequivocally answered when the former Princess of Wales, Diana, met an untimely end in a Paris road tunnel.
Back in 1997, public displays of anything – beyond the beery disappointment of the England cup squad failing to achieve anything on the football field – belonged to an almost folkloric era, long past. John Lennon's death, at the hands of a disillusioned gun-toting fan in 1980, had perhaps provided a foretaste of the kind of seismic shock of a cultural icon cut down unexpectedly, but in England at that time, popular music didn't mean that much to the generation that had its controlling hands on the levers of our national media, so without the immediacy of the internet and real-time satellite link-ups, the tragedy was filtered down to us mainly via newspapers still suspicious of rock 'n' roll and the BBC's avuncular Nationwide programme (who can forget Frank Bough posing the idiotic question to one of Lennon's former associates "Presumably this puts paid to any hope of a Beatles reunion?")?
Even in 1980, Churchill's funeral and lying-in-state was a dim and distant memory to many of us, and anyway, he died after living a full life. Things are rather different in America, of course, where Elvis Presley's death in 1977 and the assassinations of the Kennedys were truly momentous events, sutured into the very fabric of American culture. The difference with Jackson's death, of course, is that we now have a tried and tested media formula for such events, a formula that has been shaped by President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Elvis Presley's death in 1977 as well as Princess Diana's death in 1997. Already we have those iconic aerial shots of Jackson's shrouded body being wheeled into the hospital on a trolley (let's hope that no strange photo-synthesis took place, resulting in the King of Pop's image being transferred onto the sheet – one Turin Shroud is quite enough!).
Back in 1997, in the immediate wake of Diana's death, the British media were ill-prepared for the tsunami of public grief and shock that swept the British Isles and beyond. We had no real precedent for it, certainly not with the immediate global reach of the new media technologies. To those who say it was all just an embarrassing display of emotional incontinence, whipped up by cynical media professionals, all I can say is that, for those first few days, at least, the shock and sense of grief was real and palpable. At the time, I worked for an outside broadcast engineering company that was involved in preparing for the televised funeral. And for the whole of that week, our predominantly male, chippy and "hairy-arsed" workforce toiled in a very subdued atmosphere of contemplative sadness. Tears were not unknown either.
In the last couple of years before her death, Diana had won almost universal admiration and respect for the pioneering humanitarian work she undertook, particularly against land mines (much to the annoyance of old school Tories) and her continued work on behalf of people with HIV&AIDS (to the evident irritation of the Queen, who asked why Diana couldn't limit herself to working with "nice charities"). Sympathy also played a part, as we witnessed the shabby way she was treated by the Royal Family and an ex-husband, who, as the journalist Julie Burchill famously commented, was "stiff, in all the wrong places."
What was truly interesting, though, was the emergence, or re-emergence, of ritualised communal mourning in an increasingly privatised and fragmented society. On the day of Diana's funeral, I went down to Kensington Palace Gardens and experienced that rare thing in London – a feeling of togetherness, remarkable for both its diversity and civility. The Metropolitan Police were unusually friendly and helpful, people gave up their seats on the bus to people less able to stand than themselves. Polite conversations were struck up, effortlessly crossing lines of age, race and class. It was a proud moment for Londoners, showing us how, sometimes, good things can proceed from bad in this big bad city of ours.
The challenge for secular and non-religious people, though, is how we respond to this re-emergence of public mourning in the "information age" of global communications. If you doubt that this re-emergence of public mourning and remembrance is happening, just consider how the death of 8 young Manchester United footballers - the so-called "Busby Babes" - in the Munich plane crash of 1958, was actually marked by more people on the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2008, than it was at the time (thanks to the recent globalisation of both the media and the legendary "brand" of Manchester United Football Club Plc). Our War Memorials are also being restored after years of neglect, with renewed appreciation of the sacrifices made in the Great War and WW2, together with some long overdue respect for our soldier heroes fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan fighting the modern day evils of despotic and Islamic extremism.
In an increasingly de facto secular society, such as ours, what is remarkable is the way that so many people, particularly young people, feel the need to participate in these mass grieving rituals (not least, those held for their peers who fall prey to knife crime). This cuts right across the prevailing trends of rampant individualism and the kind of "privatisation" epitomised by drinking at home, rather than at the pub, or watching a film on your home cinema system, rather than at the local Odeon (if, indeed, your local Odeon still exists). Dead celebrity idols, royals and those tragedies in which large numbers of innocents die (e.g. Dunblane, 7/7, Hillsborough), somehow awaken an elemental force in us that makes us want to share in the experience, to own a part of the tragedy, even to share in the conspiracy theories. Leave your tribute on the GMTV website, tie a rose or football scarf to the railings, buy the hastily-released CD single (surely, the modern day equivalent of a holy relic). You might also want to make a "pilgrimmage" to the site of the catastrophe.
Perhaps it is this "irrational" elemental force that makes it so difficult for the non-religious to participate in this collective phenomenon. In spite of going to Kensington Palace on the evening of Diana's funeral and in spite of having queued for hours to file past the Queen Mother's coffin when she was lying in state, after her death in 2002, I still felt like an outsider. My chief motivation, I suppose, was anthropological curiosity. I wanted to observe my fellow citizens at a moment of shared public feeling, unknown since my grandparents' day. Of course, I also admired Diana and the Queen Mother as well. What set me apart, besides this curiosity, however, was the religious and quasi-religious trappings that invariably accompany these public outpourings. In spite of our de facto secularism, in such moments, most people still reach for religious symbols and paraphernalia as a means of expressing their feelings. Even if they eschew actual hymns, prayers and religious leaders, there are the inevitable candle-lit vigils, one-minute silences, cruciform floral wreaths and so on. These seem appropriate, but also sit uncomfortably with anyone who is a casual atheist, like me, let alone a committed atheist.
Moreover, when we grieve for someone we never actually knew, or even met, be they a princess or a pop star, what are we actually mourning? Rationally speaking, unless we knew the person intimately, we are actually mourning a "media construct" a two-dimensional "icon" (note the religious connotation, once again). According to those who actually knew Michael Jackson, the "little-boy-lost" image and voice was an affectation - an affectation that quickly evaporated if you got on the wrong side of him, or got fired by him. His inappropriate behaviour toward young boys, even if it was asexual, seems to be all too easily ignored by his legions of devoted followers. And then there are the questionnable links to the Nation of Islam "mafia" group, notorious for its racism and shady business activities. But, hey, the guy recorded Thriller! (so that's all right then). This is just the first reason why the rational atheist/ humanist/ freethinker is actively distanced from public grieving rituals. An icon is not a real person and mourning an icon is not rational. What you are really mourning is what the icon meant within the realm of your own personal fantasy life, not the person themselves.
Secondly, the untimely death of a celebrity, or of innocents in an accident or terrorist outrage, invariably leads to the strange voodoo of conspiracy theories. The CIA blew up the twin towers with the connivance of the Israeli secret service, Mossad, some would have you believe. MI6 murdered Princess Diana because she had fallen pregnant to a Muslim whom she planned to marry. And so on and so forth. As rational, non-religious people prefer evidence-based, factual analysis – however pedestrian that may seem – we are further alienated by this secondary tier of unreality and hysteria. Unfortunately, gay people are unusually susceptible to all this nonsense, partly because they often enjoy the melodrama – a celeb fighting for life as they are rushed, by ambulance, to the nearest hospital – and partly because, they too, often feel "much misunderstood" and hard done by. The more effeminate the homosexual, the more likely he is to retreat into the private fantasy world of iconographic celebrity and fall prey to it's trashy death rituals and the quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding them.
As already mentioned, when Princess Diana died, the modern British media had no tried and tested formula for dealing with such an event. The wave of public shock and sadness soon passed, but the journalist johnny-come-latelies who had initially failed to anticipate the public mood in September 1997, more than made up for it over the next ten years, endlessly raking over the events of what may or may not have happened in the Pont de l'Alma Tunnel, the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital and at the French post mortem (the word "French" being a newspaper euphemism for "dodgy", of course). In Britain, Michael Jackson's death on June 25th 2009, probably means a lot less than Princess Diana's death, even within the black community, but this time, one gets the distinct impression the media are leading the public mourning, not following it – imposing a kind of mourning-by-numbers ritual on a public which has, by and large, got over the sad demise of Michael Jackson now that Andy Murray has reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon. It is in America where the already tedious Michael Jackson story may have some deeper cultural significance, not here.
But to return to the question of death rituals, why do non-believers often feel so excluded? Part of this is undoubtedly our society's reticence and awkwardness surrounding death, per se. We jibber-jabber endlessly about every sexual proclivity under the sun, but if you mention that your mother has just passed away, everyone looks at their shoes and feels embarrassed. In this regard, we have done a 180 degree turn since Victorian times, when no middle class Sunday afternoon was complete without a family sight-seeing tour of the local cemetery. Yet this reticence often leaves us non-believers unprepared for anything funereal and I feel sad when I see atheist and agnostic friends buried or cremated with Christian paraphernalia I know they would not have chosen, because no one had the wit or foresight to arrange an appropriate secular alternative. And secular alternatives do exist. The best funerals I have been to have been humanist ones, simply because the "dearly departed" is the focus of the event, rather than Jesus Christ who would otherwise muscle-in on the departed's gig. Recorded, or live music, readings, poetry, personal reminiscences and a celebration of the departed's life are not just more fitting and meaningful, they seem much more comforting to those left behind too.
For public remembrances and mourning, which all too often get hijacked by the religious and quasi-religious, perhaps the gay community's response to AIDS points the way forward for secular, non-religious people. The AIDS quilt was a stroke of genius, far more so than even the recent Atheist Bus Campaign. A quilt is not a religious symbol, yet it is ubiquitous and individual at the same time. Many of those who sadly succumbed to AIDS will have contracted the virus in bed, beneath a quilt, and ended their lives in bed, beneath another quilt, perhaps even the same quilt. Each quilt, decorated with pictures and words unique to the individual remembered, then sewn into a single giant patchwork quilt, makes the several AIDS quilts now in existence very moving, eloquent and above all, secular, public memorials. They celebrate humanity, its diversity, its tragedy and its desire to heal with love. This imaginative response is something the gay community can be genuinely proud of.
Alas, such imagination is all too rare. In July 2005, shortly after the July 7th bombings, I found myself in Kings Cross and took a walk around the makeshift public memorial garden that had sprung up outside the station. Inevitably, this had taken the form of numerous "shrines" with all manner of religious sentiment and paraphernalia, as people from all walks of life, understandably saddened and wanting to pay their respects, groped for something with enough meaning and resonance to express how they felt (hence numerous images of Jesus, the Pope, Ganesh, Buddha, as well as candles, crucifixes, New Age crystals and so on). The curse of multiculturalism was also much in evidence, with one Union Flag emblazoned with the words "Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew - London United" (what, no Atheists?). Evidently, the irony that it was religion that had caused 4 Muslim youths to detonate their chapati-bombs on three Tube trains and a bus, was completely lost on these well-meaning, if inept, mourners. As far as I could see, not a single atheist or secular contribution was present. Why not? Surely, the National Secular Society (NSS) had prepared for such an eventuality and could stretch to a wreath? But apparently not. In despair, I bought some card and a marker pen from WH Smith's and wrote out a few lines from John Lennon's secular "hymn" that seemed perfectly suited:
Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No Hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one.
RIP all victims of religious terror.
We secularists/atheists/humanists/freethinkers are only just beginning to assert ourselves in the arena of public and private mourning rituals, but these are at least as important as things like "de-baptism" and civil partnerships. Rational rituals are part of our claim to freedom of expression.
National ceremonies for all