On Hearing News of Prince Philip’s Death During the Derek Chauvin Trial
Public Displays of Grief and the Politics of Mourning
Charlie Stross has a great thread on Prince Philip’s death and what it means to perform compulsory mourning for a stranger, which I recommend everyone checking out. In particular, I really appreciate the way he notes the divide between public discussions of sex versus public discussions of grief; in the Victorian era, death was omnipresent, while sex was hidden, and now, it seems, the poles have reversed, with talk of sex everywhere even as death has become increasingly hidden from view in the modern world.
But I want to separate out two halves of the question of mourning that are embedded in his opening statement, “Compulsory mourning for a stranger sucks.” Compulsory mourning is indeed a wretched affair, be it for a head of state or celebrity or other public figure. The bizarre obligation to muster tears for Prince Philip, or to have to endure forty-one minutes of cacophony throughout the Commonwealth, strikes me as nothing less than suffocating. But this is not just true of strangers; it also sucks to have to engage in compulsory mourning for someone you knew — a family member that you actually hated, for example, for whom you’re expected to wail and bemoan and shed tears.
The other half of that equation, though — mourning for strangers — not only doesn’t suck, but it is, in my opinion vital. I saw the breaking announcement of Philip’s death on CNN, where it interrupted the wall-to-wall coverage of the Derek Chauvin trial. It was a reminder of the stark difference between these two deaths: what it means to mourn for a stranger like Prince Philip, and what it means to mourn for a stranger like George Floyd.
In the past year, at least in the United States we’ve seen a nationwide, spontaneous outpouring of grief and genuine mourning for Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. The capacity we have to grieve for strangers has emerged as one of the
Watching the testimony of the pulmonologist Martin Tobin, describing in plain and simple detail how Derek Chauvin cut off the oxygen of George Floyd for 9 minutes and 29 seconds, to listen to him describe in patient, clear detail the horrifying process of how Floyd’s body shut down even as he struggled to clear his airway enough to take a breath — is to be filled with a host of emotions. Anger, pity, bewilderment. But most of all, grief. Grief for the death of a man that didn’t have to die. And, for most of us, grief for a man we never knew. A stranger.
Mourning is inextricable from politics. Who is deserving of public displays of grief, who gets to perform those public displays of grief, whose deaths must be passed over in silence, who must be prevented from displaying emotion in the face of death — these are all political considerations. Public mourning involves the interruption of daily affairs, a break in the routine, in the flow of everyday life, a recognition that something inextricable has happened, something has broken, and it brings everything else to a stop to honor that loss. Not everyone is allowed to bring the world to a halt over a death. As such, the ability to grieve in public is always a display of power.
The demand for a public display of grief over Prince Philip — a person mostly known for racism, staying always two steps behind the times, and playing the villain in the Phantasm movies — is an assertion of power by the Royal Family, and an attempt to affirm the legitimacy of the monarchy of Great Britain. It sucks because it demands tears as proof of fealty. By compelling people to bring the world to a halt, Britain’s government is attempting to prove the supremacy over the Royal Family over their citizens.
On the other hand, to grieve for a stranger can also be a means of calling power to account. It can be an act of resistance. It is our ability to feel grief for the deaths of people we never knew — George Floyd, Tamar Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, Maurice Gordon, and so many others — that drives the possibility for change.
Prince Philip doesn’t need your tears, and there’s no need to interrupt your life to honor his life. He doesn’t deserve the wall-to-wall news coverage, or the ridiculous posthumous attempts to position him as some sort of feminist for agreeing to live a coddled life of luxury. Instead, we must continue to insist that on a public space that allows for the open grieving of those who’ve died from police brutality, from authoritarian crackdowns, from criminally bungled responses to the pandemic, from systemic racism and from a failed gun control policy, along with so many others. Demanding the right to publicly mourn for strangers remains one of the most potent political weapons we have.