We talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic is upending so many aspects of our lives, yet it is foremost a story about death. Every day in this strange new normal, death counts close to home and around the world are updated, displayed, analyzed; figures are given, curves are drawn, graphs are made, allowing all of us to visualize, understand and hopefully help contain the spread of the lethal virus. Death, not to put too fine a point on it, is everywhere.
And yet, at the same time we feel its omnipresence, death itself is somehow being altered by the virus: For sanitary reasons, bodies of loved ones are carried away before they can be mourned, while social distancing measures limit the extent of funerals. Mourners around the world lament the difficulty of burying their dead, one of the key rites that define us as humans, and that intrinsically requires proximity, comforting, and general displays of affection — all very much incompatible with the current health guidelines and restrictions.
The French call this a double peine, meaning both "double punishment" and "double sorrow," as bereavement becomes an even lonelier affair. Where to add to the pain of losing someone, survivors also have to accept when undertakers tell them that the only thing they can do is "drop the body at the cemetery," as U.S. writer and editor Nicole Chung recounts in Wired.
To adapt the grieving process to our new solitary standards, technology has come to the rescue, with funeral homes offering to stream ceremonies via Zoom, drive-in interments, or grief therapists sending customized texts twice a week for a year. These adjustments, superficial as they may seem, all aim at bringing some measure of comfort back into funerary customs which, as Irish public broadcaster RTÉ reminds us, have evolved through the ages.
But with the world at a standstill, and billions of individuals mourning other less permanent losses (be it their income or their freedoms), there may be some solace in knowing that more than ever, people can deeply relate and truly commiserate. This collective grief at least provides some sense of community for all impacted, at different levels, by the coronavirus crisis, a we're-all-in-this-togetherness, albeit from a distance.
This may add another layer of injustice for a less visible, although very much still present, kind of mourner: those who have lost someone during the pandemic — but not to the pandemic. Because yes, people are still dying from other causes; and mourning them when death is all around, has become a near impossible task, as journalist Ola Salem experienced recently:
My aunt died last night in Egypt. She didn't have covid (that we know of), but because of covid she died alone. No one could visit her. Her children are stuck overseas. They didn't even get to say goodbye. My heart breaks for them and everyone else who doesn't get to say goodbye.
For those mourners, the peine, then, is triple. Not only have they lost someone, not only are they not able to mourn them properly — they have to find a way to process their "regular" loss amid a collective grieving for something else. It's a strange new normal indeed, when we are left longing not just for simpler lives, but simpler deaths.
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