Rituals of collective grief

17 July 2014. Malaysia Airplanes Flight 17 (MH17, Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur) was shot and crashed near the Ukraine-Russia border. 283 passengers and 15 crew members died. In the weeks that followed the bodies of the Dutch passengers were brought back to The Netherlands. The 23rd of July became a national day of mourning that year, and in the weeks that followed a lot of memorial services were held.

7 January 2015. Two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, killed 11 people and injured 11 others in the office of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. This was a shock for many people in France, and the entire world. In various western countries memorial ceremonies were held, often under the slogan Je suis Charlie.

14 July 2016. A large truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Quatorze Juillet on a boulevard in Nice. 86 people were killed. Again a comparable reaction can be observed, in France, in Europe and abroad – this time accompanied by Pray for Nice as a slogan.

These are just three examples of a larger cultural phenomenon when it comes to tragedies of slaughter of innocent people. I mean the collective or individual (but however omnipresent) acts of pity, compassion and identification by people who are not directly related to (or even live relatively far from) the affected places. These acts often share a great similarity.

Standardized collective grief

Government leaders are using standardized narratives like: ‘This is not an attack on [name of city], but our fundamental values are attacked!’, or ‘Never should we fear, that is what they want!’ or ‘We need to continue our everyday lives, that is where our values lie!’, and so on.

On social media lots of people with no personal connection to the attacked place or group, share their grief and identify with victims: Je suis Charlie. And flowers, candles and pictures can be found around public buildings, even in cities far from the affected area.

I think this is an interesting phenomenon, and it makes me think of acts of compassio with Christ’s passion in the late Middle Ages or later pietism. Preachers told (and tell): ‘Christ did this for all of us!’ People burn candles, lay flowers everywhere, not just around Golgotha. And many Christian songs or poems go even further by saying things like: ‘It should be me…’. Je suis Christ.

Let the object speak

If we want to investigate this phenomenon, we should come up with decent methods. Mieke Bal, a famous cultural and literal theorist, suggests that research methodologies should not just be applied to objects, but that research objects ask for certain conceptual considerations that bring forth (new) methodologies.

When we look to our object (the collective grief), we could say a few things about it:

  • The acts of grief are quite uniformal
  • They evoke a sense of tradition (the use of candles could be a religious reference)
  • The acts are public acts
  • The performers of the acts seem to believe that their acts ‘mean more’ (Je suis Charlie or the candles are not just personifications or candles, but perhaps acts of compassion and consolation for the victims).

Taking these characteristics in consideration, we could say this is a ritual.

A travelling concept

A useful interdisciplinary field for the source of our methods could be the ritual studies. Ritual studies is a relatively new discipline that is a ‘melting pot’ of several older disciplines: anthropology (already in the 19th century), social sciences, religious studies, semiotics, linguistics, etc. All these older disciplines shared to some extent an interest in the study of ritual.

In that way ‘ritual’ is a travelling concept: from time to time new agreement on the concept (a word which is also present in ordinary language) was needed: which mini-theories are clustered under the umbrella term ‘ritual’?

Looking at this phenomenon of collective grief we could come up with theories and methods from the disciplines I mentioned: comparisons with tribal rituals of grief around the world (classic anthropology) or rituals of compassion (religious studies), semiotic analysis of the candles, flowers, Je suis Charlie-  or Pray for Nice-signs, analysis of metaphor and narrative in speeches by governmental leaders or celebrities (linguistics, narratology), etc. etc.

Searching for new methods

This could of course bring forth a nice method for research, but that is not enough, I think. The highly globalized context of our ritual, which makes it a really new phenomenon, asks for methods that can be a tool for the analysis of online collectivity, reactivity, etc. What makes the (ritualistic) behavior online different from the (ritualistic) behavior on the streets? Are there new propaganda strategies been used to gather all these collectives of sorrow that need new instruments for interpretation?

Of course I don’t have an answer for these questions, but I do think I found a useful concept that can help us travel and create new methods. The object is definitely worth it.

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