Why We Mourn
Weepy reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth are absurd. And wonderfully human.
Longtime readers will know that I am an incorrigible monarchist.
In part, I am a monarchist because I think constitutional monarchy is one of those strange creatures — like hummingbirds and kangaroos — that are absurd in theory but work well in practice. But I cannot claim my views are entirely based on empirical observation and rational calculation. I am also an incorrigible monarchist because of how I feel for Queen Elizabeth.
I have Her Majesty's portrait overlooking my desk, where it keeps me sitting up straight and working. I dedicated my third book to my wife, my mother, and my Queen. At Christmas, I have long shushed the kids for the Queen’s address and toasted Her Majesty at dinner. I own no teacups commemorating this or that royal wedding, I can’t name all of William and Kate’s kids, and science has no instrument sensitive enough to measure how little I care about the whole Harry and Meghan thing. But I do love the Queen. Or, as I suppose I must say now, I do love the Queen’s memory.
When I learned of her death, I was in a hotel room far from home. I felt numb. It didn’t seem real. I recognized that feeling. I felt it when my dad died.
Longtime readers will also know that I am someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about how we think and why we sometimes fall for irrational nonsense. And I am very aware that my reaction to the Queen’s death was not rational. I never met the Queen. She was a total stranger to me, living in a castle on the other side of the ocean. To feel her loss as if she were family, as if she were my own mother, is absurd. I know that.
But unlike many absurdities, I don’t think this is one to be bemoaned and corrected. Like hummingbirds and kangaroos, it should instead be accepted, even embraced.
In one of my early memories, I am sitting cross-legged on the floor of my little school, in my little home town, in northern Ontario. It is 1977. The school is having a special assembly for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, and a teacher, Mrs. Gillette, belts out “God Save the Queen.” I am dazzled. By Mrs. Gillette’s mighty operatic voice. By my monarch.
That was a quarter-century after Princess Elizabeth became Queen, yet it was only the end of the Queen’s first act.
I’m fifty-four. In every year of my life, Queen Elizabeth was as reliable a presence as wind, sun, and gravity. She was on money and stamps. On TV. We saw her at Christmas and on her birthday. We saw her on anniversaries. Occasionally, she stopped by for a visit. And always she was cheerful and smiling, calm and calming. When times were dark, she had reassuring words. Everything else in life may change, but she seemed eternal.
Remove the bit about money, stamps, and TV and that description would do for many long-lived and beloved mothers and grandmothers. So, yes, it is absurd to feel this stranger was family. But it is also understandable. And I think a great man people know exactly what I am describing. I am, as previously stated, an incorrigible monarchist, so of course I feel this strange alchemy strongly. But lots of others, who are otherwise indifferent to the monarchy, or even hostile, were startled when they heard the news and felt something that felt vaguely like personal loss. That was absurd, impossible. And yet, there it was.
I think this touches on something fundamental about why we mourn. Yes, when we lose someone we love, we grieve for them, for the joys they will no longer feel. And we grieve for our loss of the other person’s company. But I think we also mourn because we are confronted with something we all know but try desperately not to see — that all things must pass, including our own existences. When someone who seemed eternal dies the confrontation is that much more jarring. We mourn the dead because their dying reminds us we must join them.
In every culture, at all times, as far as I know, people treat death and the dead — lifeless bodies, that is — with some degree of reverence. We build tombs, memorials, and cemeteries, and in their presence we almost instinctively become quiet. Vandalizing these places is a crime much deeper than destruction of any other sort of property. It is desecration. Even in a culture as indifferent to the sacred as ours. At a visceral level, we all know what they mean.
So while it may be absurd to shed tears for a very old woman I never met, it is just as surely a human response to the loss of a good person, the loss of the comfort she provided, and the loss, however brief, of the illusion that some things are eternal.
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