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Public mourning: a brief history

Flowers cover Sydney’s Martin Place, where two hostages were killed on Tuesday morning. AAP/Nikki Short

The sea of flowers and messages of condolence in Sydney’s Martin Place is reminiscent of public mourning in the Victorian era. At that time, it was common for over a thousand people to attend a public figure’s funeral.

In 1893, for instance, there were 40,000 spectators at the funeral of explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills in Melbourne. This was probably the biggest funeral ever seen in Australia.

The public response to the death of two Sydney siege hostages – and the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes in late November – are recent examples of the return to this kind of public mourning. Such public grieving started – or restarted after being sidelined for much of the 20th century – with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

A deeper need

The common thread in this public expression of grief is the untimely, unexpected deaths of people who are often in the prime of their lives; both the famous and the unknown.

Tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales at Kensington Palace. Paul Vicente/AAP

The spontaneous shrine in Martin Place has had counterparts around the world. The flowers left at Kensington Palace after Princess Diana’s death, and the photographs and messages outside the World Trade Centre after the 9/11 terrorist attacks come readily to mind. As does the candle-lit vigil for the victims of the Madrid train bombing in 2004.

These non-official responses to tragedy fill a need not always met by formal memorial services. Often such services don’t offer the opportunity for the general public to actively participate, and it is through actions, such as laying flowers, that the grief-stricken feel they have made more than a token effort.

More localised public grieving and commemorative practices have also been documented, most notably the roadside memorialisation for lives cut short.

Very public expressions

Such expressions of public grief are grounded in aspects of traditional British mourning culture, which were transmitted to the Australian colonies. Mourning clothes, for instance, conveyed the degree of grief experienced by the bereaved to outside observers. They were also worn by those wishing to show solidarity in a custom known as complementary mourning.

In the 19th century, newspapers reported the grief expressed by the populace at large at the demise of the great and good. And countless column inches described the deaths of the notorious, the unfortunate, and those whose passing was somehow out of the ordinary.

Candles and flowers cover the floor of the Atocha Railway Station in Madrid following the 2004 bombing. BALLESTEROS/AAP

The custom of sending of floral tributes to funerals didn’t start in the colonies until the 1880s but, once established, it became a visible means of displaying grief for dead people not in the immediate social circle of the sender. Newspaper scribes meticulously recorded and published lists of wreath donors.

This, of course, didn’t usually apply to the poor but, on occasion, the public would rally round and pay for a decent funeral for the victims of a disaster or workplace accident.

The impact of history

The focus of public grief was on the burial place. Visiting cemeteries to pay respects not only to loved ones but to socially significant others was considered a suitable activity for everyone, regardless of social background.

But the 20th century changed all this. World War I robbed many of the bereaved of a body to bury – and so a focal point for grieving. Even among families who had a grave they could visit, the distance to battlefield cemeteries prevented it for all but the very affluent. So the focus of grief and memory shifted to war memorials constructed in almost every population centre in response to the public’s desire for a place to grieve.

A woman pays tribute to victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Alejandra Villa/POOL/EPA

Another 20th century trend was the medicalisation and institutionalisation of dying. The care of the dying was removed from the management of the family in the home and placed into the hands of the medical profession. It became too “difficult” to die at home and the dying – young and old – were sequestered in institutions. Families no longer cared for their dead as funeral preparations were undertaken by funeral directors.

As death moved from the private sphere to the public, grief and mourning moved in the opposite direction. Overt displays of grief, which had been championed by sections of the fourth estate in the 19th century, were derided. And by the middle of the 20th century, they were seen as a form of collective weakness.

New rituals for old

Then, the unexpected death of the Princess of Wales, sparked an outpouring of grief not witnessed in the United Kingdom for generations.

Even those who remembered the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, which was at that time the largest state funeral ever held, observed that with Diana’s death, the grief was more personal. Mourners, it seemed, felt they had grown up with her and had expected her to remain a part of their lives.

Victorian etiquette manuals outlined appropriate behaviours for all social occasions - including funerals and mourning. Lenna Young Andrews/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

What really changed across the centuries was that few people under the age of 40 now ever witnessed a death firsthand despite its pervasiveness in the media, old and new. This lack of familiarity has left many uncertain about how much, or how long to grieve and mourn.

The Victorian era, at least, came with an instruction manual. Etiquette books described the minutiae of mourning. And in an increasingly secular society, religious rituals are being replaced by new rituals personalised to commemorate the deceased.

Plans are underway for a permanent memorial to replace the growing mountain of flowers in Martin Place. It will join an increasing array of memorial sites hosted on social media platforms allowing personal grief to be expressed by those unable to physically visit the site.

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