The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Good Mourning


Column by Matt Kartanata

I awoke on Christmas morning in 2002 to the death of my pet parrot. Her name was Polly, she liked eating crackers and though she never once squawked “Polly want a cracker,” I was sad all the same. My only pets before then were goldfish that had grown too large in both ambition and size, and once they finished their formative years were sent to find freer lives down the toilet.

Death is always difficult to handle, especially when you’re a seven-year-old on Christmas day, but I still stood by my dad and watched as he buried Polly under the apple tree. It was maybe out of instinct that my dad felt it necessary to keep Polly there—not because she particularly liked apples but because, well, what else do you do with your now-deceased pet parrot? I look back on that day as something distinctly unnatural. Our pet dying on Christmas was not unnatural, but burying her in our backyard ostensibly so as to keep her with us forever was.

Nothing is forever—not Twinkies or nuclear waste (probably?), not L.L. Bean warranties, not Kobe Bryant and certainly not Polly. And yet, in a world where death happens every day, why do we find it so difficult to let go of our dead? The way we mourn, at least in the Western world, is to primp and pamper the deceased to preserve some semblance of their dignity as if their dead body can do more in this world of the living. We dress them in formal clothes and bury them with sentimental trinkets or turn their ashes into mantle pieces, trees or vinyl (which honestly sounds kind of cool, no pun intended). But to say that any of this is unnatural, that is, extending beyond the life of the living, is not to affix a valued judgment of good or bad to these practices. Death is unnerving.

But there is an obsession that by each person’s death they have “earned” a good mourning—that they must go peacefully, with dignity and respect and without critique or ill will. Perhaps it’s easier when a figure as venerated as Harper Lee passes away to reflect upon the good she has bestowed onto the world. However, when someone far more debated as “good” or even downright vilified—like Antonin Scalia—passes, there is a silence of critique in the name of respect for the dead.

I find no joy in death, and it might be because wishing for death upon another person detracts from moving towards a society that practices restorative rather than punitive justice, but I do feel as though condemning happiness as a response to death is condemning one of varied ways we mourn and accept death.

I, for one, felt relief knowing that Scalia’s passing meant that he could no longer make landmark decisions as he did for three decades that turned marginalized groups into historically marginalized groups. But the late justice received an outpouring of obituaries and retrospectives alike that have hailed his intellect and influence, and even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that despite their disagreements on the bench, she and Scalia were very much “best buddies.” Reading the posthumous praise about Scalia has not changed my relief into guilt—it reminds me that people, like almost anything, are not one-dimensional. To deny critical dialogue about the deceased is to deny that very quality.

More importantly, people, especially public figures, do die in a physical sense, but often their image and impact live on. What is unnatural about silencing reactions to death—happiness included—is that it assumes that the ramifications of the deceased person’s actions disappear at the end of their life. That’s as true for Scalia in his death as it is for those who live on.

I have mostly been removed from the death I have witnessed, either by geography or by the lack of a proper relationship. I have only been to one funeral, and I still find myself from time to time trying to parse out what exactly it was that I felt. I know this much: as valid as posthumous discussions should be, there is indeed a period of grief following death that should be respected. Sorrow is equally legitimate to anger or relief or happiness, and is perhaps the reason why we so deeply want the dead to leave with dignity, even if dignity is being placed in a box under an apple tree.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *