All other things being equal, the manner of the death and the age of a dead person determine the response. Diana, sudden, young = vast outpouring of grief. Mandela, protracted, old = vast outpouring of celebration.
They said when it was all over that a factor in the lamentation for Diana was unresolved grief — that people, prevented by social convention from having been able to express what they felt for the deaths of their own, sublimated it instead by mourning the stranger they only knew through the media.
What has not been theorised about Mandela is that he is a focus of unresolved gratitude. Is he? I think it’s a tenable theory.
We have an all-or-nothing culture when it comes to thanking lovely people when they die. Global heroes like Mandela do just fine. But when the lady who brings my post dies she won’t be a news item and my neighbours and I will probably never get to know. There’ll be a little family-and-friends funeral, probably. We may learn about it subsequently, accidentally. We won’t get a chance to ‘show our respects’. I’d certainly like to.
Because the point is, she’s a hero, too. Okay, the record shows that she hasn’t saved Redditch from oppression and civil war. But she is indomitably cheerful, even on the snowiest and slipperiest of days. She is very nice. She has raised, with love and dedication, a son with learning difficulties. Her life — like yours, like mine — has had its adversities and disappointments.
No one’s life is easy. There is much heroism in the lives of ordinary people, much patient endurance of suffering, much unselfishness, much sacrifice, much good done, much lovingkindness shown. It’s undetectable in the people queueing for a bus or shopping in a supermarket. The public face obscures we know not what, but this heroism is general.
Life’s misadventures make heroes of pretty much everyone. A person who occasionally comments on this blog, Quokkagirl, likes to talk about ‘the extra-ordinariness of ordinary people’. She puts is well.
Today, you can lay your flowers in grateful memory of Mandela in one of lots of places worldwide but you can’t do the same for the extraordinary ordinary members of your community, your local heroes — except in the cases of those whose deaths inspire roadside shrines marking the spot.
The stories of those of your fellow-citizens who have lived and struggled and won some and lost some are moving and inspiring. All celebrants know this, and many undertakers. Every day their stories are rehearsed in crematoria and churches and gravesides up and down the land. They are extraordinary stories. It’s not their achievements that gild their eulogies, it’s their personal qualities. In this final appraisal, death is the great leveller: we are what we meant to others.
We set aside space and erect monuments to our glorious dead but not to our ordinary dead. Thus do we lose the lessons they could teach us, the examples that might inspire us and the opportunities to say thank you.
Imagine a structure that would enable you to do this. It would be at the heart of your community. It would accommodate separate spaces for the accommodation of memorials to a number of the recently dead. Each space would be large enough for a short biography, some photos and a place to lay flowers and other tokens. There might be a box where people could post messages. Each memorial would be granted a period of, say, a month.
There you might see the photo of that nice person at the supermarket checkout who always had a cheery word. You might read the story of a schoolteacher you’d never even known who’d inspired so many children to think well of themselves. And you might feel moved to buy a single flower and lay it down with the others.
Pretty much all life stories make for compelling reading. We are all part of each other. There aren’t that many people we want to forget. There are lots we’d like to say thank you to.
A people’s memorial. What do you say?
FOOTNOTE: So far as I know, the only memorial to ordinary people is in Postman’s Park, London. It was created by the Victorian artist George Frederick Watts as a memorial to ordinary people who died while saving the lives of others and who might otherwise be forgotten.