LETTER NO. 4: ON MOURNING
by Chris R. Morgan
Probably the best way to start is to offer a formal apology for my part in propagating the goth revival. This is not to assume that you have any strong feelings one way or the other on this event, but when I look back on the last few years and see both its overt and covert pervasiveness in the general public, I see it as a hapless antagonist of a horror prequel sees a once-vibrant, now-contaminated area, muttering “I can’t help but feel somehow responsible,” before being devoured by zombies.
I’ve long had a taste for the funereal. I don’t wear black as much as I used to, but I was one of the few people in America who regularly watched Hannibal , let alone as it was scheduled on TV. And while I make repeat—and perhaps annoying—public affirmations to punk, my true genre of choice is what I call “pop dirge,” which is sonically manifold—Andy Stott, Tim Hecker, Chelsea Wolfe, Jesu, to name a few—but tonally uniform. In fact, the first real date I had ever been on took place at an old-timey funeral customs exhibit being shown at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Even the very word funereal has a kind of eerie, embalmed Thanatosian beauty to it.
This is not objectionable in a broad sense, of course. This is romanticism, which is wonderful and has an appropriately imposing legacy on our art. But I approach it sometimes like a dream world I drift in and out of; my division between naïve poetic idealist and cynical prose realist is less nuanced than most. There is a difference between finding beauty and drama in life’s mysteries and fetishizing them to conceal a defective attitude towards them, the latter of which I tend to risk upon reflection.
It’s not so much that I am bad at mourning. I suppose we are all not as adequate at grief as we hope to be. We are never quite as mature or we are never quite as vulnerable as we expect of ourselves and think others expect of us. Because just as we do not ask to be given life we do not generally impose death on others, so it does not interest me to what degree or to what depth a given person copes with trauma. The Victorian era mourning clothes custom shows how the appropriate measure of grief alters over time. I’m rather more taken by the idea that we are given the chance to mourn at all.
The most interesting sights to see in New York City are the ones barred from the public. Most interesting of those is Hart Island, a 101-acre landmass off of the coast of the Bronx, which contains the City Cemetery. With over a million bodies interred on its ground, it is one of the largest tax-funded mass graves in the world. It’s likely you may already know some of this as it is covered in the media with some obsession, in spite (or because) of the fact that few have seen it directly. Those who seek entry have two good options. One is crime. The island is run by New York City’s Department of Corrections, which pays Rikers Island inmates 50 cents an hour to bury the dead; that being the other best option. Or death of a kind.
No one has full control of the state in which they die, the interred of Hart Island had less control than average. Some went there because they were unidentified or unclaimed, some because those who did claim them couldn’t afford the burial costs, and some because of simple clerical error. The AIDS crisis of the 1980s sent 16 infected there. Just under 9,000 are stillborn babies. Entry is less likely if one is living, even if one is mourning. “There are two types of Hart Island visits,” the Department of Corrections website reads, “general visits to a gazebo area on the island and burial site visits for family members of those who are buried on the island. Each type of visit takes place once per month and all visitors must be registered before the visit day.” Access used to be less frequent until a class action lawsuit forced the policy change to once a month.
Helping fill in the gaps is the Hart Island Project, a charity founded in 2011 dedicated to helping families and other loved ones gain access to burial records and advocate for more visitation rights. Most impressive is the “travelling cloud museum,” an interactive archive of those interred since 1980. Entries are not always complete. Beyond plot location, some places of death are redacted; some don’t have names. Though there is a space for loved ones to include a story of the deceased. “Her life wasn’t easy,” writes a childhood friend of one of the buried, “but in every memory I have of her she is laughing & upbeat. She was friendly to everyone & especially loved animals.” “At 11 yrs old I lost my mom and we didn’t know where she was buried because she didn’t want to be found,” writes the son of another. Other stories contain poems, half-complete employment records, or just photos.
When I was in college, high schools started instituting Every 15 Minutes, a Canadian-imported anti-drunk driving program presented for as many as two school days in the run-up to prom season. As you are a bit younger than I am, and assuming you attended public school, you probably know what I’m talking about. (So again, please forgive the redux.) It is known for two things: its not always accurate premise and the Grand Guignol manner in which it is presented, which sometimes includes faux death announcements of select students being killed in a crash, but almost always includes a staged wreck with said students, created in painstaking detail with special effects, first responders, hospitals, courtroom proceedings, and funerals. Also, videos weepily scored by cover songs of cover songs.
The program tries to present how bad choices engender a gruesome chaos, but in a way that is at once transparently formulaic and existentially confounding. It is not about death so much as it is about keeping straight on your postgraduate plan by not acquiring a vehicular manslaughter charge, which is fine in a general sense but very odd seen from this vantage point. Death and its finality are sidestepped entirely; death is the Crispin Glover to the moral failing’s Michael J. Fox. And it raises the pathos of public mourning from solemn to melodramatic to voyeuristic.
If there is any usable lesson about death from Every 15 Minutes, it is that we hope to mourn and to be mourned. Though it is crudely put, it is not a bad thing to reinforce in itself. A healthy culture is not one that mourns in a certain way, but one that can mourn at all, processing life’s end neither as a plot twist nor as a statistic. But even in our culture that is not guaranteed.
In 1948, Hart Island’s burial inmates appealed for and built a monument in dedication to the unclaimed dead. Rectangular in shape, and bearing a cross on one side and the word “PEACE” on another, I find beauty in its simplicity. The two very small photos on Google image search don’t do it justice; if I could I would make every effort to see it. It makes me consider the idea of Hart Island being completely opened to the public, for it to face a kind of death that seems impossible to fathom, with its silence, its anonymity, its utilitarian modesty, the anticlimactic paradox of one million bodies, piled in plywood boxes under a vast field, mostly just because.
I suspect such a proposal would be met with resistance even, perhaps especially, from Hart Island mourners and their advocates. It calls for a meditation of something so awesome it is almost cold; it risks abstraction, and may just enable a kind of ennui that is somehow more vague and more pretentious. It would only replace the baroque funereal with the minimalist funereal. In any case, the Hart Island Project is more powerful with a much simpler perspective. There are over 2,000 pages of names on the website, some given recognition for the first time in as long as I’ve been alive. I’d go so far as to say that its design, scrolling one cloud entry after another, is intended to be daunting for the onlooker with no name in particular to search. Our taking for granted that no one deserves to be forgotten often overlooks that remembrance is neither assured nor always as simple as the already fairly hard way with which we are familiar.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.