Read: We need to stop trying to replicate the life we had
I watched my brother-in-law, Marcus, speak at a little podium next to a large blown-up photograph of Charlie. Marcus broke up in the middle of his speech. I looked at my children, worried that they might be sad. They looked impassively at the screen. One of them asked for popcorn.
Memorials are rituals with people and food. They are hugging and drinking and lasagna. They are waiting for someone to share a story while you sit and cry, or sit, eat, and drink. They are gathering, and presence, and showing up. That night, after we attended Charlie’s memorial from our living room, our friend and downstairs neighbor brought over some lasagna. He showed up. (This was before New Yorkers weren’t allowed to bring one another lasagna over the threshold.) We shared some whiskey and stories. We talked about complicated grief. At the Zoom memorial, I felt like a bystander to grief; at our own home, with a neighbor, in person, I felt like a person in mourning.
How will we show up for one another during the memorials that are coming? How will we feed one another through a screen? Will these Zoom memorials be anything more than empty containers for unshed tears? How many unshed tears will there be during this time, and where will they go?
Ritual conjures the invisible, and the invisible is hard to feel on a Zoom call. But I fear that we are going to have to get used to the idea of rituals on camera in this age of quarantine. After all, isn’t some shared sense of the grief better than none, even though it is so much harder to feel viscerally through a screen?
In Japan a few years back, a businessman started the practice of rui-katsu, or “tear seeking” events. People came together to watch sad videos designed to make them cry, the thought being that they would feel better after crying in public. The technical term for that is more ancient—it is catharsis. Ritual catharsis demands the physical—bodies, tears, proximity. How will we have catharsis in this time of collective mourning when we cannot be near one another?
Read: Crying it out in Japan
Some people want to grieve privately, and on their own time. Some people prefer that to public demonstrations of shared grief. But as a playwright, I appreciate catharsis. I have been grateful to weep at funerals, with people I love at my elbow. But did I weep on Zoom? I was aware that my weeping would be broadcast, and I kept my face impassive.
Nor did my children weep at their grandfather’s Zoom memorial. Perhaps they did not weep because they did not know their grandfather well, because their grandfather elected to be near impossible to get to know. Or perhaps they did not weep because they were watching a ritual through a screen.
After the speeches at my father-in-law’s memorial, my husband’s family and family friends went to eat together at the buffet in the dining room. The living room cleared. A couple of old neighbors said hello to us—the digital exiles on the computer—as they passed by on their way to the buffet. For a long moment, we watched an empty room on a screen.