Want to clear a room? Start talking about death.
Conversations about death and its attendant emotions, sorrow and grief, represent one of the last taboos in our culture, says Toronto writer Julia Cooper, who examines our complex relationship to grief in her new book, The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of the Eulogy (Coach House).
The painful, messy realities of loss are largely excised from daily life—not because they aren’t meaningful and yes, even life-affirming, but because they’re “unproductive,” argues Cooper. Strange as it may sound, death conflicts too greatly with the way we live. “We are systematically encouraged to repress loss and grief as a way of maintaining productivity for the benefit of a capitalist system,” she writes.
After her mother died when Cooper was 19, the Toronto-based author became acutely aware of how little time society grants the grieving to “get over” loss—and how divorced we are from connecting death to life. Since then, she’s devoted much of her life to trying to understand cultural ideas surrounding mourning, even writing a PhD on how grief is portrayed in contemporary literature and film. In The Last Word, she turns a critical eye on the eulogy, that “vexed art form” which, in her view, reveals less about the dead and more about how the living feel (or choose not to) in the face of mortality. In many ways the eulogy, says Cooper, is “a way of performing a kind of grief that enables us to avoid experiencing our grief in full.”
Cooper talks to FLARE about death, hashtag mourning and the dangers of upholding cultural standards of grief.
Your mother died when you were 19. How did that alter your trajectory?
I don’t think I can really answer that. It’s just like one of those Sliding Doors things. I think about that a lot. Would I have gone into academia [if it hadn’t happened]? I honestly couldn’t tell you.
Did studying mourning really help you process your mom’s death?
It was work I was really interested in and glad to be doing. But I felt a lot of anxiety in wrapping up my PhD, and not for the normal reasons people feel anxious, but because in some ways I felt like I needed to be completing my work of mourning as well. I finished [the PhD] and then wondered, What do I do with all this grief that I’m left over with?
This book was radically different from writing the academic dissertation and that’s partly because I had a truly wonderful editor who encouraged me to explore my personal story and braid it into a broader cultural analysis, and I felt ready to do that. In a lot of ways I don’t think I did much processing of grief with my dissertation—I think I actively avoided that. But this book has been quite healing for me.
You call the eulogy a “vexed art form,” what are its limitations?
I think the eulogy is a really important ritual but because there isn’t a larger conversation about grief and processing it, the eulogy hasn’t really become the vehicle of grief—it’s become this really fraught space of anxiety about public speaking, about how to master these last words. I don’t think that’s an inherent failure necessarily of the form itself—I think the eulogy can be heartfelt and honest and it can do a lot of really significant work—but it’s been divorced from that because of this larger resistance to grief, even though it’s going to come for us all at one point or another.
A lot of the eulogies that I critique in the book are those that try to show only one face of grief, and that is the kind of happy narrative of loss, one that only speaks of someone’s successes and accolades and doesn’t account for the real complexity of what it means to be in the wake of grief. And that’s where they fall flat for me.
No one wants to feel uncomfortable at a funeral when you’re already uncomfortable…
And that discomfort is fascinating to me because if we can’t be uncomfortable and really sad at a funeral, then where can we? Where is the outlet for that kind of grief? It’s certainly not the funeral now but I think the danger is that it doesn’t happen anywhere else, either.
A lot of our icons of grief set a very high standard. Jackie Kennedy became an icon of grief because during JFK’s funeral she showed no emotion. She was so stoic, so brave. And the famous image of her son, John, saluting his father. I’ve always looked at those images and felt inadequate, that I could never perform so well in a state of grief.
And why would you want to, really? Did you see the Pablo Larrain film, Jackie? It gave a different narrative from the one you’re talking about and that most of us are familiar with, and that is that she really wanted to grieve but no one would really allow it.
I think when a public figure mourns so stoically, like you say, it becomes a kind of blueprint for how the rest of us should grieve. That in the face of loss we should be so stoic and just as brave-faced and get back to work and back to “normal” as quickly as she did, and I think there’s something dangerous in that.
Personally, I think I would be incapable of delivering a eulogy as they are expected to be performed. A few days after I’ve lost someone close to me, I’m supposed to stand up and perform? I think the person in the room who is the most comfortable doing a eulogy in that time frame is the least qualified to deliver it…
Exactly, because they have the emotional distance! It’s such a vexed, quirky, weird thing that we expect; that’s why in the book I talk about this eulogy that William Basse wrote about Shakespeare ten years after his death. And also Cheryl Strayed’s beautiful memoir, Wild, which was written 15 years after her mother’s death. You need some time for the dust to settle before you can gather your thoughts and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
One of the insights you offer in the book, which was very meaningful to me, was when you talk about how entrenched capitalist ideas effect the way we grieve and how we allow others to grieve. Can you talk a bit about that?
I think just living in late-stage capitalism as we do, our emotions are regulated in all kinds of invisible and overt ways, and I see it the most starkly there insofar as there is an unwritten script that we can’t be sad for too long, we need to get back to“normal” and over and on top of that our sadness can’t impinge on the happiness of others. It’s not like this narrative pushing us to “get back into the swing of things” is serving our own best interests, it’s [so] we don’t impinge on the happiness of others and feeling that pressure is very stressful for anyone who is grief stricken.
On a different note, in the book you address the ubiquity of hashtag mourning—the outpouring of social media posts after a celebrity dies—and offer some theories on how it relates to the performance of grief. I personally find it annoying, empty. I always think your grandmother is probably at home alone, living out her last few days, and you’re losing it over David Bowie?
I think this micro-eulogizing that happens on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram when a celebrity dies is an outlet for these repressed emotions that we have about loss and death. Tweeting about Bowie is an easier way to “confront” death then, say, calling your grandmother. To perform [mourning] on social media for others, where it can become a collective, shared emotion is in contrast to the very painful, ugly, messy work of personal grief, which often other people can’t share in at the same time as you.
When these micro eulogies erupt online I think it’s feels like a chance for people to engage in this collective grieving—or at least a pseudo performance of it—and feel that they’re not repressing their fear of death, or that they are able to hold these very hard emotions publicly. But as I say in the book, I don’t think that’s really happening. I think it’s just an easy displacement for most folks.
You say you want to create more room for us to live with death. Have you been able to do that?
For me what really made the biggest different in my life was finding books, like Wild, over the last 12 years that talked about grief. My humble hope for my book is someone will pick it up and spend a few hours reading it and in doing that will have carved out a little time for themselves to think about grief. It just opens a bit of space for you to engage in your own recollections and reflections. Now, years later, after losing my mum it’s just in the daily texture of my life. I don’t need to block off 20 minutes a day or an hour a week or an anniversary on the calendar to think about death or my mum because death is not antithetical to life; death and life are not these warring forces, one against the other, they’re so braided together but we’ve just been raised in a culture that pits them against one another.