Features Published 25 January 2016

Digital Ash in a Digital Urn

David Bowie and Alan Rickman both passed away in one very sad week. As dust of social media tributes, op-eds and excavated controversies starts to settle, Exeunt contributors think about how the internet has changed our experience of collective, and individual, mourning.
Exeunt Staff
David Bowie and Enda Walsh's “Lazarus” at the New York Theater Workshop. Photo: Sara Krulwich

David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s “Lazarus” at the New York Theater Workshop. Photo: Sara Krulwich

Colin Bramwell: I don’t react viscerally when I hear a famous person has died. It’s becoming rarer to hear this stuff from a real person: when that happens, it’s always awkward to watch everyone around you fall wanking to the floor over the news. When David Bowie died, robo-Hermes poked me in the leg then delivered the fact as he would that of a sanction being lifted, or my preferred football team scoring a goal. My reaction to either would probably be the same anyhow. If it’s to be expected, I don’t feel much beyond a sense that the inevitable has been fulfilled. If it’s out the blue, more surprise than shock. The feeling is not comparable to a person you know and possibly love dying. An obvious point, but it stands nonetheless.

Of course, it’s more complicated for some. Especially when a newly-dead celebrity’s still-living creations are central to your life. You feel like you know that person, that they’ve given you greater knowledge or happiness, or just made you feel something deeply. You take their communion, and they become as real to you as Jesus is to Christians.

But look at the pictures and videos of David Bowie quietly walking around New York, with his face and hair hidden. And think about the sheer number of faces that introduced themselves to that man, expecting for their connection to be reciprocated even in the smallest way: and the disappointment on those faces when they realised this was impossible.

It’s as normal as death. Artists make things for other people, but they also do it for themselves. They have to in order to be happy. If you ask what Bowie (or Alan Rickman, or Glen Newey, or Lemmy, or any dead artist) could have created if they were still alive today, do you do so because you would like to hear it? That’s a god-awful small affair. It’s sadder to think they had some unfulfilled germ of an idea inside them that now can’t be expressed because of enforced silence. Almost unbearable.

But this is a problem the living share with the dead.

I can’t weep for David Bowie. For me, and probably for you, he existed in near-total abstraction from his real, human life. The fact of a man’s real actual existence wouldn’t matter to you, outside of his music. You can still listen, you can still hear his voice. Nothing really changes, apart from our own sense of finitude, which might sharpen our faculty of listening. His last single was called Lazarus. I can’t mourn him. He isn’t dead.

A catalogue of Victorian mourning wear

A catalogue of Victorian mourning wear, courtesy of the New York Public Library open source archive.

Alice Saville: Every century has its own rituals for grieving. Medieval queens wore white. Victorians had a labyrinthine system of black, then dove grey, then black banded lilac and specially designed bonnets: commercialised signifiers of public grief, whether for a lost child or a dead Prince Albert. The twentieth century cast off some of these visual, symbolic excesses in favour of an approach that turned a blind eye to death, an unwelcome guest at the atheist tea party. As a (slightly odd, slightly morbid) child I’d turn straight to the obituary pages of my parents’ paper: they revelled in this hushed-up mortality, but they were also stories, full of life and colour, with a satisfyingly predictable end. Silent film starlets dying alone, unvisited: politicians, pioneers of forgotten industries or inventors of niche but necessary gadgets all kept incongruous company together. I wished I could have visited them, kept the flame alive.

I’m not too young to remember Alan Rickman or David Bowie as real, vivid presences. Few people out of nappies are. But the weirdness of last week was how much of a time for learning it was, as well as for remembering what we knew already. The social media outpouring meant I found out about Rickman’s stage career, heard Bowie B-sides, delved into problematic political opinions nearly half a century old, shared memories, swapped stories. A public display of mourning far more stimulating than a well-trimmed black bonnet. Would it be better to focus this love and attention on all the amazing people who are still alive? Probably. But an online grave isn’t a closed, dead stone or a two column obituary: it’s a rich teeming archive, and what a wonderful thing that is.

Analogue fan culture: a crop from 'kurt cobain was lactose intolerant conspiracy zine'.

Analogue fan culture: a crop from ‘kurt cobain was lactose intolerant conspiracy zine’.

Amelia Cavallo: I remember when Kurt Cobain died extremely vividly. I was eleven years old, but completely immersed in Nirvana’s music because of my older sister. Cobain represented so much to me that I didn’t completely understand at the time, and he was gone before I could process anything. He was definitely one of my first celeb crushes (preceded by Michael Jackson among others… another celeb death I took quite hard). I was so saddened and confused by his death, and think it still effects me to this day. I named my first guitar Kurt (still have him) and had this gigantic poster of Cobain’s face with the years of his life on it like a gigantic tombstone on my wall for years. Most of my friends didn’t get the obsession, so I kept quiet about it. His life and death were so important to me but I registered this in silence.

David Bowie was equally important to me, even though I was only three when Labyrinth came out. Again, older sisters educate you on things that maybe wouldn’t have been so important otherwise. My parents are also old hippies so Ziggy Stardust was an important part of my musical upbringing. I love Bowie as much as I love Cobain, but of course am old enough now to understand at least somewhat more fully what his death means. The difference is that now, there is a whole community of people expressing the same things I feel in a public forum. I found out about Bowie’s passing and Alan Rickman’s passing (he’s yet another hero of mine) on Facebook, and I’ve mourned them both using this medium and other social networking sites. It’s beautiful to see first hand how much a person was loved, and more importantly, how much wonderful art they managed to create in one lifetime. Sometimes I hate social media, but in big life moments I feel like it creates a togetherness that 11 year old me could have used when Kurt Cobain died.

Tim Bano: Despite the fact that I’m going to be a best man for the first time this year, I still think that funerals are much better than weddings. A great part of that is the collection of people who attend a funeral, each knowing the deceased in a different way, for a different reason.

It becomes clear at a funeral that you only ever knew one side of the person you thought you knew. Each commemoration, each eulogy and threnody offers a different story, and brings into the light another gleaming facet of some complex whole.

The same is true, in a different way, of celebrities – though even calling people like David Bowie and Alan Rickman ‘celebrities’ is an odd cheapening of who they seem to have been as people.

When Alan Rickman died so many people – from the mega famous, to fledgling actors – each had a story to share about his support and generosity. That he would drop everything to see shows they were in, that he would write handwritten letters with advice. These memories, shared with a colossal, greedy and mourning public, are a powerful way to turn grief into joy.

All the funerals I’ve been to, all in churches, begin with a priest urging the grieving congregation not to mourn someone’s death, but to remember their life. The way that close friends and family of people who’ve died can share intensely personal memories with a huge audience humanises these people, and it celebrates them. So perhaps, in that sense, ‘celebrity’ is not so bad a word after all.

Lauren Mooney: When I was seven, my parents – who were probably, in retrospect, drunk – shook me awake in the middle of the night to tell me Linda McCartney had died. Unusually for the mid-90s, all three of us were vegetarian (I tell people that’s because my parents were hippies but they weren’t really, it just sort of happened), so I knew her both from that Wings song I liked [see video above] and sausages. I may have asked if there would still be sausages now that Linda McCartney was dead. It’s possible, although I can’t remember for sure, that I even cried.

I like to tell people this story because I think it’s charming and a bit weird, like my parents. Who wakes their kid up in the night to tell them anyone other than their nana has died? Why couldn’t it wait until morning?? I think it’s sweet – and indicative of a certain kind of ownership people, and families, can feel over famous people they don’t really know. Something indefinable that makes these things personal – and of course the internet has taken all of that personal feeling and made it very public.

One of my best lecturers at university was always talking about Virginia Woolf and I’ve never forgotten the way she talked about grief: how it got into everything Woolf wrote and how desperate she’d felt, after her mother died, at having to take part in all these strange Victorian performances of grief. Her books, said my lecturer, were about grief’s strange way of unsettling things, the fact that you might feel nothing when a person dies but be struck by it all months later over some small thing.

There is something strangely Victorian about all this public grief, I think, expecting people to feel things all at the same time and in the same way as each other. Feeling too much or too little leaves you open to criticism. And yet people are weird and grief – even for people you don’t know – can be weird and personal and latch on to other things, and trying to feel things at the same pace and intensity as literally everybody else is a bit of a big ask.

I was so upset about David Bowie dying that I forgot to bring some important papers to a professional engagement. In the end, in a moment of madness, I confessed to the woman I was meeting why I had been discombobulated and forgotten them. She softened immediately. ‘Oh god,’ she said. ‘I know. Bowie. I cried. And I had to wake my daughter up to tell her.’

'Truth, Lies, Diana' on stage at the Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Donna Richens

‘Truth, Lies, Diana’ on stage at the Charing Cross Theatre. Photo: Donna Richens

Stewart Pringle: The 31st of August 1997 fell on a Sunday, so my dad, a car mechanic and garage owner, had the whole day off. Most Sundays of the year we’d take a trip away, me, mum, dad, my little sister Heather and my very little sister Iona, who would then be a wide-eyed toddler. We’d pop across Hartside Pass into Cumbria, then across the scraped-flat flood-plain of the Lakes to Keswick, for a walk skirting Derwentwater and cups of tea (for mum and dad) and toffee apples or candy floss (for me and my sisters) at the Lakeside Cafe. Or sometimes we’d spend the day in the shops at Durham, or the local railway at Alston. But a Sunday in August, and particularly in the baking hot August of 1997, was liable to be altogether too crowded for what my parents considered a nice day out. There would be over-flowing car-parks by Derwent, no seats at McDonald’s in Durham, and long and sticky queues by the ticket offices of all the local railways. So on a Sunday in August, we’d more than likely stick close to home.

But in the early hours of the 31st of August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales died of injuries sustained in a car crash in a concrete road tunnel in Paris, and at roughly 7AM on that morning, I flicked onto some channel as I prepared to stick a Hammer film on for some early morning Curse of Frankenstein when I saw the news. I barrelled upstairs and relayed it to my parents, bursting into their room and shouting ‘Diana’s dead! Princess Diana’s dead!’ I didn’t particularly *like* Diana, as it happened, truth be told I held something of a grudge against her for beating Gillian Anderson to the top spot in some long-forgotten (and, thinking about it, still slightly surprising) 100 Sexiest Women Alive poll, but it was still News.

Big news, at any rate, for my Dad, who leapt out of bed in a flash and announced ‘Let’s get to Alston! It’ll be empty!’ And so we rushed into our clothes, and through our breakfasts, mum packed a picnic and off we shot to Alston. And he was right! No queues of pushchairs, no tussle for tables at the platform cafe with its formidable hostess, who waged sharp-tongued wars with the authors of crude graffiti in her lavatories. The carriages were half empty, and the walk along the sidings, smelling of sun-baked clinker and hay, were clear. Whether the Nation was, as Dad had surmised, clustered around their televisions or signing books of condolences somewhere, they were resolutely Not having a jolly at Alston light railway.

It was one of the very best days out at Alston that I can remember, and Dad still talks about it. Years before, when he and my mum were first courting, they’d pulled a similar heist for a quiet, mid-season day out at the now-defunct seaside resort of Silloth, on the occasion of Diana’s marriage to Charles, bargaining then, as they did that Sunday in 1997, that a national outpouring of any sort, joy or grief, was at least good for a good day’s peaceful lark.

[A YouTube video of Lemmy’s livestreamed funeral, clocking in at over two hours long]

Daniel B. Yates: A singular triumph of modernity comes in the form of rentamourner.co.uk, who offer services promising to “increase attendances” at funerals, and, somewhat alarmingly, “introduce new faces” while dealing with what they call “popularity issues”. An industry ripe for disruption, one can assume that the Uber of Mourning will bring in-depth profiles, lamentation menus, keening sliders (autotuned and otherwise), GPS to track the location of your nearest gigging actor and biofeedback to assess the authenticity of their simulated grief. If hiring people to miss someone seems to be a lovely slice of ‘bowling alone’ miserablism, market relations gliding into the very stilled heart of tradition, then it’s also the case that hired mourning, or moirology, is a profession that gets a mention in the bible, by Lucilius, in Ugaritic epics, and plenty of other economies where performance of marking death is a ritual service.

Life is supposed to exist somewhere beyond exchange. And we bridle at the idea of buying a simulated connection with someone. If you could con the Gods with a cheap dance for a wooden nickel, then their successors, us individuals, demand something more authentic. If we can tolerate mourning as big business on social media, where quantified Buzz is the Great Leveller, we only do so for the flipside of a kind of distributed obits production, death being a relatively spontaneous and self-selecting event, lending some ground for memory of imagined communities. But death is too easily hijacked. Back in the ‘90s the corpse of Princess Diana was dragged around the streets to much confected gnashing and wailing, where Will Self observed “how London acted as a stage set upon which collective fantasies of intimacy with power were being played out.” Two decades on, in the vast vistas of the public-private social, this vision of putrefying perambulation seems almost quaint. The flesh of the Sovereign no longer needs to be rent. Habeus Corpus is suspended in the midst of hoaxes and jokes. Mourning is broken, and Public Death is where power permeates, taking the form of competitive grieving, where the being seen to grieve, the evincement of grief, is inseparable from the grief itself. Any public death now entails what Ballard called ‘the Death of Affect’, marked by the endlessly proliferating packages of emoji flowers at cloud-based graves. The death of a micro-celebrity and the death of a friend are the same thing. And yet we still yearn for authenticity, in a networked world intent on deconstructing that very quality, or selling it to us as if it was our own to have.

I can perhaps offer two, differently mediated, examples of authentic mourning. First was watching Lemmy’s funeral stream on Youtube with a million or so others. If there was anyone born to die it was Motorhead’s bassist, a fact which lent the occasion a certain bathos: the sense, not that it was overdue exactly, but more that it had, by virtue of being contained within the idea of Lemmy, already happened. (And as a result that the real moment to mark, which lurked like an unacknowledged mescal worm in a bottle of Jose Cuervo, was those unlikely ones he spent amongst the living.) As the cameras swept the small white wooden chapel, and the dude from Judas Priest was as sweet as the man from Metallica was as full of preening self-regard, the effect was of an innocuous ritual. It was on the one hand a functional rock and metal community event, and on the other, from the perspective of the stream, a crowd of ultra-thin social bonds stretching around the world, linking over the idea of a man and his tremendous capacity for self-abuse, a sort of cat’s cradle of mourning held by those with essential tremors. As an owner of Hawkwind vinyl, an inveterate mosher to Ace of Spades, and an admirer of Lemmy’s and his no-horseshit Staffs stoicism, it left me unmoved.

The second example was the revival of Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree at the NT Shed, a device of a play which places the apparatus of theatre in service to living mechanisms of change and renewal. Afterwards I felt really high. I gushed into my diary at the time: “The effects were physical. Outside the NT, having a fag in the glowing amber summer evening, I felt light as anything. It was as if this whole framework of anxiety, useless doubt, distraction, inchoate grief that I’d taken into the theatre had been hoiked away upon leaving. As if some kind of phantasmic toxicity had leached, seeped, crawled, flew from my thirty-something year old bones. It was not catharsis, I had not been put through the wringer. It couldn’t be put down to the irradiating effects of sound, motion, or light. It wasn’t the intellectual rush of a new idea or perspective. It was in my limbs as I moved cigarette from hand to mouth, a new smoothness and occupation of myself; as if somewhere in the course of An Oak Tree I had been returned to a lighter and more real version of myself, that was also an expanded dilated version of myself, that was also a loss of self.” I think there were a number of things going on particular to my situation, to do with my relationship to theatre and its institutions, to the embodiment of the particular performer that afternoon, but it was also the general mechanisms of the piece which allowed in my own personal multiform spider of grief, my own shit, to mingle along with all the others, in tears on the Southbank that afternoon. It’s said that people cry at weddings not through joy but because nothing will ever be that pristine or hopeful again. I’ve long suspected we live in a society of post-traumatic subjects, of renewing, abandoned, and frequently violated selves. And because of this, and in order to live, perhaps we need to mourn more often than we think and in more ways than are obvious or sanctioned.

Rosemary Waugh: Following the realisation in the early days of my marriage that waking to the sound of Radio 4 contributors tearing each other apart and automatically joining in was not going to be conducive to me being A Good Wife or having blood pressure functioning at a normal level, we now listen to Radio 3 first thing. So it was that on the day of Bowie’s death we woke to the sound of Petroc Trelawny breaking R3’s general rule of focusing on little that happened post-1920 and announcing the news, followed by the reading of a tweet that concluded ‘Goodbye to Bowie, Goodbye to our youth.’

It was a comment that reminded me of – back before I switched over – a R4 documentary by Samira Ahmed called “I Dressed Ziggy Stardust’, first broadcast a while back and re-played last Saturday. In it, Ahmed discussed the importance of Bowie to a generation of British Asian girls, who found a soul mate in a man who represented being the outsider.

It’s easy to dismiss collective mourning as something perverse, a macabre bandwagon jumping club, but this forgets that the people often collectively mourned – musicians in particular – are those who represented more than a single human, they were an era, a youth, an image to make teenagers feel less alone. When the person behind this dies, we mourn in a general sense for both them and us and everyone we have ever known getting older and closer to the grave; for our own youths turned in to redundant plastic CD cases. At age 27, I sometimes watch with interest at an older generation’s idol dying, wondering if I too will tweet Petroc’s successor in response to the news that Jack White has died, remembering the days when dressing in red, white and black seemed like the most natural, and coolest, thing to do.

Annegret Marten: I own a VHS tape that I have only watched once. It is from 2001 and consists of about two hours of news footage from all over the world reporting on the death of George Harrison. Then as now I was part of a mailing list of German Beatles fans called Pilzkopf (literally, mushroom head) who would exchange thoughts on concerts, new album releases and general chitter chatter. And when George Harrison died in November of that year a very dedicated member of our list had gone to great lengths to prepare this recording and then copy it (do you remember how laborious it was to copy VHS cassettes?) and then send it out to fellow fans. The fact that I bought the VHS was an assertion of my fan-ness which stood in for the act of remembrance itself. It was mourning by proxy through the object.

The mailing list although still in existence now barely has any posts, but every time there is a mail I find myself rattled back a little bit back into the time when we would passionately discuss the meanings of the lyrics of Strawberry Fields or alert each other of the latest book publication. Once I drove several hundred kilometres to see Manfred Mann Earth Band founding member Klaus Voormann talk about his time in Hamburg with the four Liverpudlians. A bit of a niche event to get excited about? Perhaps so, but that was because before social media was all pervasive, being a fan meant being part of smaller communities which were often discreet from another.

Today, professing to liking a certain artist has possibly become a much more performative act. Liking an artist is as much about the artist as it is about being perceived as liking them. Akin to the feeling of self-assurance you get from posting selfies on Instagram after having practised the perfect duck face air kiss, posting links to music videos of bands is a statement of your own taste which you put out there to be judged by others. Other, more self-assured people might see it almost as an educational mandate to enrich their network’s artistic taste. So when the whole community within which you perform yourself mourns the loss of an artist, you end up curating carefully which bits of their work connect most closely to that identity. Are you a Best-of kind of person, do you like discovering the B-Sides, read interviews, watch film extracts or are you after the funny bits?

It’s clear that this is directly linked to how art is consumed. I used to be massive hoarder when it came to my favourite bands but with physical objects dissolving more and more into the digital realm, the social sharing has almost entirely replaced the function of those object. But for me the impact of the mourning has become much more fleeting, maybe even more shallow. I still find George Harrison’s last album Brainwashed to be one of the best records I’ve ever listened to and that’s certainly to a great degree because of the very specific mourning experience I went through with the people on my mailing list. There was no posing there between us fans, just the music and stories of a man with a Ukelele who was no longer with us.


Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.