Spectacular Death and the Histrionics of Loss

Michael Templeton

For one summer, I worked at a local cemetery mowing grass. Spring Grove Cemetery encompasses over 700 acres of land. It was chartered in 1845 and remains open to this day. The cemetery is a major destination for walking, biking, sight-seeing, and simply relaxing in the natural surroundings. One of the things I came to notice as an employee was the stark contrast between the older parts of the cemetery and the newer plots. The oldest stones and grave markers contain little information. Some stones do not even have names on them. They simply say “Father” or “Infant,” etc. Older stones that do have writing on them generally state the date of birth, the date of death, and a few lines from the Bible. There are symbols on some of the stones which denote certain professions—doctors, clergy, military men—carry an iconography specific to those vocations and most of this iconography is quite ancient. By contrast, the newer stones are covered with writing. Lines from popular songs, poetry, and sentiments from the bereaved clutter these stones. The newest stones may have etched images from photographs so that an image of the deceased is engraved onto the stone. In the newer parts of the cemetery, one can find grave markers shaped like cartoon characters. Some of the stones have the appearance of modernist sculpture so as to set it apart from older gravestones. The change from stones and graves which leave nothing but a bare stone to graves which are covered with information is not attributable to mere fashion or advances in technology. Rather, this change has everything to do with the ways people understand death itself.

Spring Grove Cemetery itself came into existence due to increasing concern over cholera outbreaks and the unsanitary and unsightly presence of old church cemeteries which left dead bodies to decay into sources of drinking water and were an affront to middle-class ideas of how neighborhoods should appear. The dual pressures of public health and changing attitudes toward the emplacement of the dead coincided throughout the Western world with the emergence of the modern cemetery and Spring Grove Cemetery is emblematic of those pressures. It is now an enormous example of the drive to create a space for the dead which was easily accessible to the city center but outside of the city proper, and it is an example of such a space that serves the additional purpose of being a destination for recreation. It is adjacent to the city but not in it. It is a space reserved for the interment of the dead, but it is a marvel of landscape design and architecture. Lastly, it contains something of an archaeological record of a shift in the way individuals understand death itself.

The cemetery is an example of that type of space defined by Foucault as a heterotopia. It is both real and unreal. It occupies a border region in terms of the actual space which is occupied by real individuals.

Heterotopias are liminal places—the way a mirror offers a real place which is both present and absent:

"The mirror functions as a heterotopia in this respect: it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there." [1]

The cemetery offers a similar social function. It is the mirror image of the city in that it is completely deliberate in its spatial design and it is occupied. Yet, the cemetery is designed not to facilitate the movement of bodies but to inter bodies—and it is occupied with the dead. It is the inverse version of the city itself. Like the mirror, the cemetery is a real place, but it operates in a manner that is unreal since it does not function as a place for individuals to exist, only to desist. So, the modern cemetery emerged as a site in which societies could place the dead in a real place that functioned as a kind of unreality with regard to everyday life. There is the place of the dead which one could visit and even enjoy, but the place of the dead could be put out of mind when it came to living life.

Spring Grove was born of this social movement. Founded in 1845, it coincides with the historical period described by Foucault and it bears the cultural traces which Foucault describes as signs of the modern cemetery. These are sacred spaces, but they emerged during a time that was distinctly secular. The modern “cult of the dead” emerges during a time of a paradox:

"This cemetery housed inside the sacred space of the church has taken on a quite different cast in modern civilizations, and curiously, it is in a time when civilization has become ‘atheistic,’ as one says very crudely, that western culture has established what is termed the cult of the dead." [2]

An “atheistic,” or secular, society is also the society that creates an entire city devoted to the preservation of the dead. It is under these conditions—conditions in which a firm belief in the life of the soul is fading and therefore must be performed in an ever more elaborate fashion—that the place in which commemoration of the dead becomes a visible and dramatic presence. In previous times, when the conditions of possibility created the conditions in which individuals firmly believed that God guaranteed the care of the soul, people did not need to commemorate bodies. As faith in the soul decreased, care of the body increased. Again, Foucault:

"Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language. In any case, it is from the beginning of the nineteenth century that everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay, but on the other hand, it is only from that start of the nineteenth century that cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities." [3]

We create a city of the dead only when we are no longer certain that God has done this for us. This is not to say that the advent of the cemetery coincided with the complete abandonment of faith in the afterlife. Rather, the rise of the modern cemetery marks a time in which faith in the afterlife is no longer a fundamental fact for the living and must therefore be demarcated in the form of a space that is both sacred and secular so that the living may continue to have access to some kind of symbolic place and sign which stands in for both loss and faith in the afterlife. The modern cemetery is a heterotopia in the sense that it is an “other space” and it is a place in which a paradoxical understanding of death could find some measure of reconciliation.

We see evidence of complete faith in the afterlife in the forms of gravestones which carry little to no information. The facts of the life of the deceased are of no importance because the deceased is no longer in the world and has passed on to another world. To consign the dead to a nearly anonymous place in the world requires absolute faith that the soul of the dead has literally passed on to another world. A parent who has lost a child, for example, does not require a stone with the child’s name engraved upon it in order to remember that child. The stone simply does not perform that function. It marks the site of a burial and nothing more. As Foucault states, it is the move toward a more “atheistic” society which demands monuments to testify to the life of the deceased. What is more, the monuments and the small personal boxes for bodies speak more to the living than to the dead. We do not erect monuments for the dead for the simple fact that they are dead. We erect monuments for ourselves. They are markers to prove to ourselves that the deceased were in fact important to us, and the monuments are to show others that we care. The heterotopia of the cemetery has much more in common with the mirror than the dialectic of the real and the unreal.

As we move into the 20th century, the gravestones become more loquacious. Modern and contemporary stones are engraved with lines of biblical scripture. They bear poetry and song lyrics. The most recent stones bear engraved images from photographs. These are extremely realistic images which look like black and white photographs which have been directly printed onto the stone. In another cemetery in Southern Indiana, the stones are almost all this type. People leave photographs, toys, trinkets of all kinds, along with religious items such as rosary beads and crosses. As we move into contemporary times and the function of religion and faith fades from playing any role in everyday life, the demonstrations of grief and loss, the sheer number of words used to mark loss, and the profusion of images just explodes all over the cemetery. The more removed faith in the afterlife becomes, the more pronounced the declarations of faith in the afterlife.

More words are inscribed to mark the faith of those who still live. More realistic images are rendered to commemorate the lost loved ones. This would indicate more than a loss of faith. It indicates a turn away from loss itself and a nearly obsessive focus on the ego of the bereaved.

The dead are dead. They do not see the image of themselves on the gravestone, and if they have passed on to the divine realms, their image is present in this other world. The presence of the image which is presumed to mark loss in fact marks the increasing presence of the egos of those who remain alive.

The contemporary grave marker is a mirror of the ego on which the bereaved can gaze upon themselves. The heterotopic structure remains, but it has returned on the level of the ego.

A fundamental lack of real belief finds an expression in the iconography and cluttered language of the contemporary headstone. What we see in these histrionic displays is a profound inability to confront the reality of death. One forestalls the reality of death by filling in the loss with a profusion (and confusion) of images, words, and trinkets thus shifting the focus away from loss itself and onto the individual who experiences the loss.

Rather than allow the progression of psychological mechanisms in which an individual experiences loss, suffers the process of mourning, and finds resolution in the acceptance of the loss, we see the cultural expression of a complete fixation on loss itself. This is Freudian melancholia on the scale of public theater, and it manifests itself in forms which resemble graffiti. Freudian mourning and melancholia are distinguished by the thorough process of mourning in which the ego is directed outside of itself and melancholia in which the ego contemplates itself:

"In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself." [4]

This would be sufficient except that the contemporary ego is already poor and empty since it has been evacuated of substance by finding a place of meaning exclusively in the exterior drama of the spectacle. This is an inversion of Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” in that these demonstrations do not reflect what Artaud envisioned as an expression of “both the upper and lower strata of the mind.” These are theatrical advertisements for loss that express only the most superficial marks of grief. [5] Contemporary life projects the ego into the external world and can only find a ground of being and meaning to the extent that this exterior ego function is reified in the system of exchange which only knows consumer existence.

Consumer existence requires the system of exchange in order for anything to be real. The form of melancholia expressed through the verbose and graffiti strewn headstones we find in the newest parts of the cemetery indicate an ego which cannot comprehend death at all except as an affirmation of itself.

Far from paying homage to the deceased and far from a spiritual declaration of faith in the afterlife, the contemporary headstone is a testament to the flimsy ego of the same individuals whose lives are devoid of any reality because at the level of individual experience. There is no reality which exists outside the realm of merchandise and display. The profusion of words and images is designed to compensate for an ego that has been entirely evacuated of substance.

What we witness in the contemporary graveyard is not melancholia proper since the ego fixation on itself is in fact an ego fixation on a prescribed mode of performance loss. There is no confrontation or meaningful experience of loss since it is denied in the form of a spectacular show of loss.

"The dominant trait of the spectacular-metropolitan ethos is the loss of experience, the most eloquent symptom of which is certainly the formation of that category of “experience”, in the limited sense that one has “experiences” (sexual, athletic, professional, artistic, sentimental, ludic, etc.). In the Bloom [the indeterminate form of contemporary life], everything results from this loss, or is synonymous with it. Within the Spectacle, as with the metropolis, men never experience concrete events, only conventions, rules, an entirely symbolic second nature, entirely constructed." [6]