The politics of grief: Cultural necessity or callous tradition?

Sriya Varadharajan 26 January 2016

A‘'trailblazer of musical trends'’, '‘a rock musician of rare originality and talent'’ and ‘'a style icon'’ are just some of the words used to honour the passing of one of music’s most iconic figures. Tragically, the death of David Bowie, at age 69, is only one of the several the world has had to process in the last month. 

It has become a measure of cultural and moral decency to celebrate rather than denigrate the lives of those that have passed. But this is clearly not always the case. In fact, with the death of their most immediate opponent, some take it upon themselves to proclaim the failings. “A brutal ruling class warrior is dead” read the Socialist Workers’ obituary of Margaret Thatcher. It is with this parallel tradition of the revival of criticism that the emotional aspects of grief become more political and the ‘politics of grief’ is played out once again.

Should such criticism be allowed? And how, if at all, can it be reconciled with the redeeming qualities of the individual? This is the recurring debate in light of this cultural tradition. The biggest problem with the ‘politics of grief ’ is that it is political to begin with; it is often dichotomous in its choices and ruthless in its pursuit. Due to the cultish, mythic image people receive after passing, we forget that they were first humans; capable of mistakes and inherently imperfect.

I find this post-mortem onslaught unnecessary, as what should be a time of remembrance and sensitivity is warped. The death knell instead becomes the bell of a political wrestling match, marking the commencement of another round. A time of remembrance and sensitivity becomes warped; except, this time, the opponent isn’t fighting back.

For me, it is not so much a question of truth (another unfortunate parallel with politics, it seems) but of respect. This is one of the only periods where the triumphs of the deceased are overriding and their vices almost irrelevant. It is the short period before memory turns into history. It is armed with this truth that I can tolerate mass, even exaggerated praise.

After this transition, it is the historians who make it their goal to decide. So regardless of how vociferously anyone voices their support or condemnation, historians will spend eternity arguing over it anyway.