Mourning in America: Whitney Houston and the Social Speed of Grief

In England in the late 19th century, death was a highly ritualized affair. Wives were expected to wear special dresses -- black, conservative, often accessorized with "weeping veils" -- for up to four years following the death of their husbands; if you'd lost a sister or brother, six months of mourning garb was the norm. "Full mourning" (lasting for a year and a day after the death), "second mourning" (the nine months after that), and "half mourning" (the three-six months after that) weren't suggestions or ironies; they were phases to be followed, and strictly.

To modern sensibilities, the whole idea of mourning suits and widows' weeds seems extremely quaint and ridiculously confining and, overall, just what it is: Victorian. But the clothes and the strict guidelines for donning and doffing them were part of a larger purpose, which was to create a framework, an agreed-upon system of customs and rituals, that people could turn to amid the chaos of a death. The formal observance of a loss -- whether for seven days or four years -- carved a space for mourning that fit, by communal fiat, into the life of the community in question. By giving people an agreed-upon period of bereavement, the rituals also gave them, implicitly, an agreed-upon time to move on.


Mourning is murkier now. It is less regulated, less public, less prescribed. The 20th century brought a reshaping of grieving as an institution, Meghan O'Rourke argues, transforming it from a public ritual to a private burden and reframing it as something that could be kept, anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer had it, "under complete control by strength of will and character, so that it need be given no public expression." Or, more specifically, no time for public expression. At the turn of the century, the historian Philippe Ariès says, "the death of a man still solemnly altered the space and time of a social group that could be extended to include the entire community." Today, though, the time we allow it to do the altering is contracting, and quickly. Ever the optimists, we emphasize moving on; how we do that, though, is no longer laid out for us in neat phases and frames.

I mention all this because of Whitney Houston. Who is not our mother or our sister or even our friend, but who nonetheless -- particularly for the generation whose coming of age coincided with the height of her fame -- carried with her the strange intimacy of celebrity. Houston died late Saturday afternoon, Pacific time; the news of it first broke -- on Twitter -- just over an hour later. By Saturday evening, media of all kinds were bursting with obits and tributes and heartfelt tweets and makeshift memorials. The remembrances continued, though at a much less frenetic pace, into Sunday, until, last night, at the Grammys, Jennifer Hudson sang "I Will Always Love You" in tribute to that song's most famous singer, bringing conclusion to a weekend that nobody saw coming.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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