Magazine

What is 'national mourning' for?

  • 8 March 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Venezuelan woman mourns

Venezuela is holding at least seven days of national mourning following the death of President Hugo Chavez. But, what does this tribute amount to in practice? And is "national" mourning a meaningful expression of grief, or a purely symbolic political gesture?

The state takes the lead. Flags have been lowered to half-mast, cannon shots are being fired each hour until Mr Chavez's funeral, and schools and universities have reportedly closed for three days to allow young people to pay their respects.

Police units have been deployed in the capital, Caracas, in the words of Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, to "accompany and protect our people and guarantee peace".

These seven days of mourning have been echoed by three days of national mourning declared by regional allies including Cuba, Argentina and Ecuador.

"Whenever a state makes some sort of decree like that, it's inherently political," says Jill Scott, a professor at Queen's University, Ontario, who studies the social dynamics of mourning.

"There is no doubt that a good bout of grief is extremely good for national unity."

A declaration of national mourning is, she suggests, not unlike the moment days after the 9/11 attacks when President Bush launched America's "war on terror" saying "grief has turned to anger and anger to resolution".

"The common denominator is that the ruling government made a decision and told the people what they were to do with their grief," says Professor Scott.

However divisive a figure Chavez was in his own country, the grief expressed by many Venezuelans is undoubtedly heartfelt.

Hundreds of thousands of Mr Chavez's supporters, wearing the yellow, blue and red of the country's flag, took to the streets on Wednesday to see the coffin pass by en route to the capital's military academy, where the late president's body was to lie in state before the funeral on Friday.

But national mourning is for more than the individual, says Joanna Bourke, professor at Birkbeck College in London.

"The grief is not only for the loss of an important person and symbol but the loss of a future - the foreclosure of a national future," she says.

"We saw this most potently in the funeral of Queen Victoria when the whole nation went into a kind of shock - despite her age, it was unbelievable that she should die."

Britons last took part in official national mourning for Winston Churchill in 1965

The fervour of the mourning can differ dramatically from one country to another.

Amid a frenzied outpouring of grief in Iran in 1989 at the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, several mourners were killed and thousands injured in a crush at his funeral.

More recently in North Korea, scenes of people weeping and breaking down following the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011 left some in the West doubtful of the authenticity of those emotions.

"Genuine or fake - it's not quite an either/or in North Korea," says analyst Aidan Foster-Carter, honorary senior research fellow at Leeds University.

"It was very much an order, you were certainly supposed to be solemn, but that doesn't mean the tears weren't genuine.

"If you have been taught this person is the centre of the world your whole life, their death might get you quite het up."

The mourning period of less than two weeks for Mr Kim in fact pales in comparison with the three years to mark the death of his father, Kim Il-sung, from 1994 to 1997.

Bin Xu, assistant professor at Florida International University, argues that the "settings" common to so-called "national mourning", such as crowds lining a funeral procession route, help to intensify displays of grief.

"When many other people around us are displaying their grief, we are more likely to wail and even outdisplay our fellow mourners," he says. "We might be surprised by our own feeling display in such settings."

Professor Scott suggests that to some extent, in terms of public grief, a dividing line can be drawn between the "more reserved" northern hemisphere and "more emotional" southern hemisphere.

But, she adds, outpourings of public grief like that for Michael Jackson in 2009, which spanned the globe with no state encouragement, are increasing in an age where media penetration makes people feel they personally know public figures.

The death of Princess Diana in 1997 was even an occasion where the scale and intensity of public grief not only caught UK officials by surprise - but threatened to turn Britons against the Royal Family for their perceived remoteness.

While it was not officially declared a day of mourning, the Saturday of the funeral brought the UK close to standstill as shops and banks closed, sports events were postponed, and theatre and cinema showings cancelled.

Professor Bourke says: "Days of national mourning not only reflect a national community but create it."

Or, as Professor Scott puts it: "There is nothing to pump people up like a good bout of grief."