Forbidden mourning: how COVID-19 threatens our collective memory

As we collectively face this new crisis, efforts to make sense of it and read meaning into it have emerged. The end of capitalism, the end of globalisation, an antidote to waste, climate change, excess, or the heralding of a new, more flexible society working remotely are only some of the suggestions that have emerged. Some are reasoned analyses; others little more than punditry. We should expect these to multiply further and faster, perhaps become bolder (either more visionary or apocalyptic, utopic or dystopic) and be amplified. The ratio between new facts and commentary will inevitably shift towards the latter. Weeks and months of isolation will cause people to look for new ways to make sense of a dramatic situation.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such efforts: meaning-making can be an essential part of some post-traumatic therapies and people have the right to seek healthy ways to cope with stressful and unsettling circumstances. Yet I’m wary about the balance between making sense and averting the gaze. As thousands die every day and the fight to save many more rages on, succumbing to despair or scanning the skies for silver linings seems equally obscene: the former is selfish and suffers from tunnel vision, looking down and within; the latter makes us look up and around. Both ultimately cause us to look away just when coping requires facing the facts. Whatever happens, whether the pandemic leads to a cure for climate change, to an ultra-nationalist world of closed borders of or to an era of international cooperation and mutuality, none of it will matter if we don’t take at least a moment to see death and mourn those it takes.

Long before psychoanalysis diagnosed the denial of death as a condition – at least since the ghost of Patroclus shamed Achilles into burying him but not enough to prevent his desecration of Hector’s body (‘Thou sleepest, and hast forgotten me, Achilles. Not in my life wast thou unmindful of me, but now in my death! Bury me with all speed, that I pass within the gates of Hades’), rules around mourning have allowed us to work through the crucial early stages of grief. In Judaism for instance, rites of death and funerals are both elaborate and extremely simple, designed to help the mourners accept that death is death, and life is life.

Of all the frightening consequences of this pandemic, the denial of a funeral is perhaps the most heart-breaking. The image of a military convoy transporting bodies for cremation, from Bergamo in Lombardy, Italy’s worst-hit region, to Modena in neighbouring Emilia-Romagna, is already iconic: an ekphora in the time of Covid-19, it shall haunt death in our times as the Greek steles recorded those funeral processions in theirs. This sombre opposite of a military parade, at one time mobilisation and demobilisation, this image is a symbol that links this pandemic to tragedies ancient and modern, in which either mass death or the uncertainty of death shrouded human loss with an anonymity quite different from that demanded by privacy and respect.

As in wartime, we now follow the daily human toll in the form of statistics and, as in wartime, it is too easy to forget that each unit is a life, mourned by people even from a distance. Yet today, as Paolo Berizzi wrote in La Repubblica: ‘the people of Bergamo no longer has even a coffin by which to mourn the dead. They just count them.’ Mourning is a casualty of the pandemic.

With a generation of elderly citizens, each country is threatened with the permanent loss of its historical memory. On 22 March, the daily statistics of the Italian state health institute reported that 416 victims were in their 90s and 1806 in their 80s, these groups affected by a mortality rate of 23-24%. In Italy, losing the generation born between 1930 and 1940 means losing the last living memories of education under the fascist regime, of World War Two and the anti-fascist resistance, of the 1946 referendum that ended the monarchy and shaped modern Italy. The passing of the generation born between 1910 and 1920 entails the fading of the last memories of World War One, of the 1918 flu pandemic, and of the rise of fascism, just at a time when we need to bolster the antibodies to stop it ever rising again. If they all go, who will be left to raise the alarm of 105-year old José Ameal Peña, the last Spanish survivor of the 1918 influenza pandemic? How many other warnings, how many other voices have we already irrevocably lost?

It’s hard to calculate what knowledge would we lose in Aotearoa, in Australia, in the UK, if we busy ourselves with predictions instead of focusing on the fact that each victim has a name, a face, a story. After the World Wars, it took historians decades to realise that we needed to recover and tell the anonymous stories of those who lived and died in wartime, too long reduced to numbers of casualties or little arrows on a map. We have no such excuse now. The world’s collective memory is at stake: protect it, record it, cherish it while we still have a chance.

Giacomo Lichtner

Giacomo Lichtner is Associate Professor of History and Film at Victoria University of Wellington and serves on the board of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. He is the author of Film and the Shoah in France and Italy (2008, 2015) and Fascism in Italian Cinema Since 1945: the Politics and Aesthetics of Memory (2013).

More by Giacomo Lichtner ›

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  1. A wonderfully moving and timely reminder of what is really happening, of what we lose. My recent novel The Sweet Hills of Florence, dealt with the Civil War in Italy during WWII and my current manuscript is set instead in 15th century Florence as the Plague rages. I am struck by how much this resonates in both eras.
    Thank you for this focus on what we lose.
    Jan Dickinson

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