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we become besotted by death

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 18, 2007.

Normally, I’d hesitate. It’s too close to the event in question, and it’s uncomfortable. If nothing else, we’re at war and more people than normal are concerned with the deaths of the young and vibrant. But in watching the Virginia Tech incident unfold and be subject to various analyses, I’m beginning to think we are developing a necrophilic’s attachment to death and melodrama. So, I want to talk about it while it’s all around us, unavoidable.

In old civilizations, whether Mayan, Roman, Sumerian, or in China, as the civilization became less constructive and rather stagnant, the funerals became more and more elaborate to honor those palpably less impressive than those before, and whether by religious design or just pandering to powerful families, images of the dead and prolonged public mourning became the rage. Intended to show respect and honor, they became self-parodies, with professional mourners who cried and wept for those they did not know, descriptions of the deceased so overblown as to resemble no mortal, and eventually becoming templates of expression that people used sequentially, with names inserted, and phrases tweaked, but all having the same effect of making funerals the same as we’ve made weddings: festivals of emotional extortion and photo op. In the case of weddings, no need to insert the word emotional.

As network coverage of the horror at Virginia Tech ramped up, you found yourself mouthing the words that are always there, following the template and the predictable cliches. “Struggling to understand,” starting the “healing process,” and of course the shooter was a “loner,” and the community is shocked – shocked! – and never thought something like this could happen, being so peaceful and all.

Although, it turns out in this case nobody was surprised he did it, and in fact some had predicted this exact ending and gone to the authorities about him. Given the insufficient attention and action exhibited by Colorado authorities before the Columbine shooting, and others elsewhere, this must have been of such obvious nature that one wonders if potential mass murderers would be put under restraint and observation if they actually bought radio time to announce their intentions before grabbing the Glock.

I’m a sentimental sap. I choke up at the image of that 76 year old professor, a Holocaust survivor, an escapee from the Iron Curtain, a professor of note, who heroically blocked a door while his students jumped from windows. He was killed an actual hero, willingly giving his life for others, which somehow seems utterly fitting and of a piece. This is worthy of singling out.

Less moving to me are interviews with parents here in Colorado with children at Virginia Tech, including one with a mother whose daughter had a class in the building where the most bloodshed occurred. Her daughter wasn’t actually there in class because she didn’t feel good, which could be anything from actual illness or hangover, but Mom was willing to go on camera and speak with the careful, precise, low volume enunciation of the professional mother, schooled by watching near identical testimonials at three quarter angle over the decades of watching television news, soaking up whatever she expected from such an exchange. We all know it’s not news, but what in the world does it say about us that we nod with furrowed brow over the maternal agony of a mother whose daughter could have been, but was not, involved?

We’re not concerned, we’re not moved, and frankly, I’m not sure there is a reason we should be, beyond respect and sorrow for the family of the fallen. We’re wallowing in false sentiment over people we don’t know and whose ending is no more emotional than the equally young and vibrant who died in traffic accidents across the nation as the shootings and the aftermath played out. There is a difference between understandable shock and outrage to the prolonged set piece breast beating bemoaning the loss and using it as a photo op and media moment for ourselves. It cannot be healthy that our accepted method of mourning and grief in this nation, whether dead or missing, was received instruction by Tony Orlando and Dawn.

We make every tragedy the same, every funeral. All bombast and false sentiment. And often elevated to importance it really does not have. It bodes ill, this conversion of the media into the professional mourners, instructing people how to react to the deaths of those we do not know, covering with its own wails the silence of those actually affected, which, where it still exists, is far and away the more moving, the more dignified. Just as it was once suggested the best way to pray was alone in a closet, it may prove to be the effective way to mourn as well. Else, a clear sign we are becoming one with Nineveh and Tyre.