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Good mourning

People of faith should celebrate, not belittle, mega-funerals

By David Wilson

The photos of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and three former prime ministers on a Canadian government Airbus bound for Nelson Mandela’s state funeral in South Africa late last year brought to mind a flight the same plane made to another spectacular state funeral 17 years ago.

The whole world seemed to be in mourning in the late summer of 1997. On the last day of August, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. A week later, her funeral drew huge crowds in London and an estimated worldwide television audience of 2.5 billion. The night before Diana’s funeral, Mother Teresa of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) died at the age of 87.

Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s staff barely had time to catch their breath after Diana’s funeral before they were assembling a delegation led by Madame Aline Chrétien to fly to Mother Teresa’s state funeral in India. I was one of two reporters invited to tag along. Boarding the Airbus, we left Ottawa in the middle of the night and landed in Kolkata 18 hours later.

The funeral was held in a sweltering sports arena while monsoon rains fell in sheets outside. The ranking members of the Canadian delegation were ushered to seats near the altar. The rest of us were seated miles away. I had to stand on a chair to catch even a fleeting glimpse of Mother Teresa’s flag-draped open coffin.

The equivalent of about half the world’s population watched those two funerals in September 1997. Eight years later, about two billion people watched the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome. The memorial service for Mandela and his funeral five days later attracted millions of viewers worldwide.

Some media critics have taken to describing mass outpourings of shared grief as “mourning sickness.” One frequently cited 2004 study by the British think-tank Civitas suggested the trend is linked to the decline of organized religion. “Mourning sickness,” it declared, “is a religion for the lonely crowd that no longer subscribes to orthodox churches. Its flowers and teddies are its rites, its collective minutes’ silences its liturgy and mass. But these new bonds are phoney, ephemeral and cynical.”

I think there’s something to the loneliness idea. Humans need to feel connected, yet we’re constantly inventing ways to insulate ourselves from each other. Spectacles like mega-funerals are occasions for sensing the presence of others, for sharing emotional bonds if not physical ones. But deriding these mass outpourings as disingenuous or inferior because they take place outside the formal confines of a church, mosque or synagogue smacks of the very elitism that has turned many off organized religion.

People of faith should celebrate, not belittle, the fact that so many millions see fit to pause and pay tribute to lives that stand out as examples of humanity’s better side. If nothing else, it shows that for all our differences, one thing we do share is a sense of good. Blockbuster funerals are a sign of hope, not decay.

The one mega-funeral I attended is mostly a blur now. What remains indelible is the ride back to the Kolkata airport after the ceremonies ended. The streets were teeming with tens of thousands of Hindus and Muslims praising an Albanian-born Catholic nun. Before I went on the trip, I had reservations about Mother Teresa’s politics and views on personal morality. But in that place, at that moment, those concerns were overshadowed by the spectacle of so many different people brought together by the good she had done in life. Knowing that millions of others around the world were, in a sense, on the streets of Kolkata, too, took my breath away. 

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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