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

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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.

File:Victorian_mourning_garb.jpeg

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.

Between the news of Houston's death and the performed commemoration of it, in other words, less than two full days have passed. And yet the time for mourning -- a mourning not necessarily of grief, but of communal nostalgia, the kind we reserve for a Jobs or a Jackson -- is fading. Instead of four years or seven days, we're giving ourselves a moment, a burst, to commiserate and commemorate before we shed our widows' weeds and move on. 

The overall trends reflect what I've seen, in miniature, in my own Twitter feed: an initial spike in reaction to the news, followed by a steady decline in the discussion as the hours clicked by. Yesterday, already, with the exception of the Hudson performance, it was a little bit awkward still to be talking about Whitney. Today, even more so. It's just so ... Saturday night. While there are, at the moment, still articles being written about Whitney and her legacy, and while it's inevitable that the discussion would peter off, the time to talk about her on Twitter -- turn, turn, turn -- is dissolving, rapidly. The window is closing, quickly. We've had our allotted phase for re-watching the national anthem video and remembering that scene from The Bodyguard and reminiscing about our first cassette singles of "So Emotional" -- but that phase has been quick, and the quickness has been carved not by cultural agreement, but by our abbreviated attention spans. We talk a lot about the sped-up news cycle -- the new news, with its new metabolism -- and its effect on the way we relate to information. What we talk less about is how the new speed of the news cycle is changing the way we relate to each other, culturally. Impatience is becoming the dominant emotion of the discursive Internet. We want our conversation fodder fresh, exciting, and yesterday.

And on Twitter, our remembrances of the dead, too, are fodder. They are content. And content can be many things, but really, if at all possible, it should avoid being stale. So we move quickly to say our peace and move on, lest the window of relevance close on our tributes. Public remembrance still divides itself into full and half phases; the difference now is that the phases play out not over months and years, but over minutes and hours. And so grieving and grief, the institution and the emotion, disentangle from each other, until collective memory -- collective memorial -- takes the guise of a trending topic. 


Images: Wikimedia Commons, Trendistic.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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