Collective grieving: why we give flowers to the famously dead

Yellow ribbons tied to the fence of Leeton High School for murdered teacher Stephanie Scott. Photo: Kate Geraghty
Yellow ribbons tied to the fence of Leeton High School for murdered teacher Stephanie Scott. Photo: Kate Geraghty

In a tough poem about a small child who drowns in a dog's bowl, American scholar Linda Gregerson concludes, "We're slow to cut our losses."

Meaning: we hang on to grief. Or rather it hangs on to us. And that's true when it's close to home, but generally less so the further away from our own circle of concern, as personal tragedy becomes another sad story in a world full of them.

A toddler drowning across town, whose sweet antics we don't know personally, may cause us to pause and feel awful, but life quickly goes on without much protest or ceremony. A bunch of kids blown up in a Baghdad market - rarely are there cherubic photographs of the victims in news reports - registers as a shiver of horror, and again life goes on in a heartbeat. Indeed as I write this, it's being reported that dozens have died in Iraq from an ISIS car bomb. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote.

However, in the last couple of years, in Australia, some events have elicited spontaneous mass demonstrations of, well, we call it grief and maybe it is - but social scientists, commonsensically, see it as a more complex phenomena that's happening more frequently. At the very least, that shiver of horror and sadness is registered as a communal shout.

Consider the last nine months: responding to Twitter (#putoutyourbats) people around the world put their cricket bats on their doorstep in memory of felled batsman Phil Hughes; #PutOutYourScarves led to a more localised but similar response for Adelaide coach Phil Walsh.

In April, the body of Leeton school teacher Stephanie Scott was found on the eve of what was meant to be her wedding day. In its place, the family and town arranged for a memorial picnic. When it was reported that Ms Scott's sister Kim had asked attendees to wear yellow, social media was soon after flooded with images of yellow clothing (#WearATouchOfYellow). Then came #PutYourDressOut which led to hundreds of women hanging wedding dresses on their front door and posting condolences.

There were two key elements in these three events: the initial news reports, which immediately carried multiple images of the dead, and details of their lives; and social media, which complicates the lives of participants, and their relationship with the wider world.

Sociologist Tony Walter is the director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath in UK. He says that 20 years ago, he'd ask his class of 50 students who had been directly affected by death: about a quarter put up their hands. When he asks that question today, about three quarters lay claim to grief.

"I don't think the death rate has gone up," says Professor Walter. "So I'm wondering if it's social media that has made the difference."

Certainly, the internet has allowed greater and more graphic access to the world's horrors - but it's also allowed the development of virtual village life. Social media, in turn, provides an immediate and ongoing snapshot of what's happening in the lives of not only friends but acquaintances - including people we may have never actually met in person, and yet have come into our social media circle for reasons that can't be remembered. And yet we become privy to not only what kind of pizza these people enjoyed in Mexico, but to more intimate news such as the death of a mother or sibling. And so we find ourselves obliged to offer condolences to people we barely know.

"There is social pressure to participate, you have to say something," says Walter. "Sometimes this can be hurtful. Who are all these hypocrites coming out of the woodwork?"

He recalls the instance of a young girl dying and being deeply mourned on facebook by a girl who had bullied her. And yet that's what happens, or used to happen, in a real-life village - your neighbourly enemies were once obliged to appear at your funeral.

"It used to be said 20 or 30 years ago that grief was still a private experience that people didn't talk about," says Walter. "That was very much a creation of the 20th century.... social media is reversing that, and there is a lot more sharing."

But what about when it's a notorious or famous death. In those instances, what's being shared isn't always grief per se. In old Europe, if the lord of the manor died, everyone local had to turn up at the funeral and were sometimes given a loaf of bread for their troubles. That was less about people feeling sad, "and more about legitimising the power structure," says Walter.

"Today we have different values. Celebrity and sport have high value... people will have their own psychology and motivation to do this medieval stuff (of commemorating death of an elevated person) ... but it's a great mistake to think that these things are about grief; it's as much about declaring or rearticulating an identity. Or in the case of a murdered person, we're partly saying `this isn't what our society is about."'

Mass displays of grief are also a way of huddling together and putting up a wall against the threat of death that awaits us all. "After 9/11 there was a mini baby boom... New York literally huddled together for comfort."

Walter says that how groups and society deal with death and loss continues to evolve and change. "It will carry on changing. We always get it wrong and look for ways to do it better."

Dr Margaret Gibson of Griffith University has written extensively on the mediatisation of death and grief. She says the death of a celebrity can be the first traumatic experience of death for young people. "For many young people, Steve Irwin was their first major loss."

In fact, the extent of public grief - a paddock of flowers befitting Princess Diana - when Irwin died in 2006 led to much pondering in the media at the time. For many, the pain and shock was heartfelt. But there's a danger in how far we go to express our personal pain for someone who has a close family going through a much deeper and longer lasting pain.

"There is a danger around the ethics of public recognition and identification that can tip over into a form of cannibalism... how the famously dead almost become consumed. There is so much symbolic value you can get out of that death, especially a violent death... it becomes slightly edgy. The value is in keeping it on the side of the line where it remains respectful."

Still, there is danger in turning a callous shoulder to a celebrity death. Anthropologist Rohan Bastin, Deakin University, tells the story of warrior king Shaka Zulu who ordered countless people be put to death after his own mother died. "If they didn't cry hard enough he had them killed as witches," says Dr Bastin.

This story Collective grieving: why we give flowers to the famously dead first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.