LOS ANGELES--Americans don't mourn right. We are tacky. We turn tragedy into kitsch. Recently the news has been dominated by the aftermath of the Tucson, Ariz., massacre: the memorial service, the funerals, even the reopening of the Safeway supermarket.
A memorial service at a sports arena. What is wrong with us?
Thousands of cheering fans--er, mourners--donned "Together We Thrive: Tucson & America" T-shirts, handed out by the University of Arizona. They greeted the arrival of President "Bar-Rock Star" Obama with applause and wolf whistles. They interrupted with raucous hoots every couple of minutes--and he did nothing to tamp down the unruly crowd. Emergency responders got a standing ovation. Attendees clapped at the mention of the 9-year-old girl who was shot to death. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was booed. A memorial service should not feel like a WWE event.
Each mass tragedy amps up the volume and surreal inappropriateness of Americans' public expressions of grief. After 9/11, New Yorkers posted "missing" posters for people they knew were dead. Stuffed animals and grammatically challenged notes, soggy and runny, hung from the fence at St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero while vendors hawked cheap framed photos of the Twin Towers a few feet away.
From memorial pages on Facebook to memorial decals on SUVs, Americans think anything goes when you're mourning the death of a loved one--or someone whose death made national news, which somehow makes you want to feel involved even though, of course, you are not. Just be sad. It's OK.
As the cultural critic Marita Sturken wrote in her 2007 book Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero, all this tacky phony sentimentality serves a sinister purpose. Mainstream American culture is being manipulated by government and big business to separate us from what is real--death and horror--and to obscure who is behind it--our government and big business.
So, as a public service to the grievers of the future, I hereby offer the following:
Etiquette after a Massacre
(1) When interviewed on TV never say your "heart goes out to the victims and their families." We have heard that hoary chestnut a million too many times. Keep your heart where it belongs, inside your rib cage.
(2) If you are a public official holding a press conference about a school shooting/workplace shooting/terrorist attack, refrain from thanking a long list of local and state officials for their help. This isn't the Oscars.
(3) Whether attending a memorial service or actual funeral, leave your hoodies, baggy pants and tank tops at home. No baseball caps, no T-shirts. Don't wear anything with a team logo.
(4) If you know one or more of the victims, ask their surviving relatives whether they would prefer flowers or a donation to a preferred charity. Do not waste money on flowers and stupid stuffed animals.
(5) Unless the victims include at least one politician, no politician should speak at the service.
(6) No. Applause. Ever.