A BBC producer approached me for a documentary on how different religions, including my own Catholic faith, helped believers cope with loss. I also wrote an article for The Spectator about funerals. At the time I thought it was a fairly contemplative piece, but given the timing – only a few weeks after I’d been widowed – it was the product of a raw emotional state.
According to Catholic tradition, a widower wears a wedding ring for a year. I removed mine the day after the first anniversary of Jo’s death. – Colin Brazier
In the wake of The Spectator article, newspapers said I had “ordered” mourners to wear black at the Requiem Mass of my late-wife, Jo. That considerably overstated my argument. It was enough to fire up the radio phone-ins and I was target of a little light social media pitchforking. Most Twitter users seemed uneasy with trolling the recently bereaved, but not all.
In retrospect, it was an interesting experiment in the study of Respectability In An Age of Online Outrage. In the real world, those in mourning are cut some slack. In its digital simulacrum, there is still a sense of respecting fresh and private grief. However, there is also a substantial minority who feel that its right to scream abuse cannot be gainsaid. In fact, that restraint is a kind of surrender to their ideological adversaries.
It made me think about respectability, and whether – by writing a little sententiously about a recent loss – I’d myself broken an unspoken rule of propriety and decorum. Since then though, I’ve thought again about respectability: what purpose, if any, it serves and what we lose by its diminution.
Because, once a widower writes about the death of his spouse, there is only one other story that an editor really wants to commission. Just ask the footballer Rio Ferdinand. When he starred in a documentary about being widowed, the former England captain shone a light on a phenomenon that, mercifully, is increasingly uncommon in the West. But in answering some questions, he also posed another. Having lost one wife, would there be another?
In the real world, those in mourning are cut some slack. In its digital simulacrum, there is still a sense of respecting fresh and private grief. – Colin Brazier
For Rio Ferdinand, who remarried last year, the soul-searching had been made simpler. His late-wife, like mine, knew she was dying of breast cancer and told him to marry again when the time came. But permission is one thing. What about the period? How long to wait? This is where the question of respectability prompts some head-scratching.
In Rio Ferdinand’s case, four years elapsed between his widowhood and remarriage. Last month he announced that he and his new wife were expecting their first child. Is that enough time spent in remembrance? According to Catholic tradition, a widower wears a wedding ring for a year. I removed mine the day after the first anniversary of Jo’s death.
But what about remarriage? It’s not a subject, beyond this abstract meditation, I want to discuss publicly. My late-wife had strong views about death and what she felt was a culture of denial and trivialisation that turned some funerals into fancy dress parties. In that sense, I was merely passing on her posthumous opinions. A channel for her piece.
If there is to be a next time, my future spouse – not least because she’ll still be alive – may be less likely to bare her petticoats. Or, at least, more chary of allowing me to bare them for her. There is also the broader question of respectability. Not just whether it’s a respectable subject for discussion (I’m a journalist and as such, I have a vocation for disclosure and an intuitive aversion to secrets). Nor even what constitutes a respectable time frame for widows to be alone. More, who defines what respectability actually is.
Because, without this nebulous idea of “having done something disrespectful”, we run the risk of vacating a space that will be filled by diktat. If we, the people, don’t make clear our disapproval, then the state will. And so, as in totalitarian countries, the state will set about codifying private morality.
I discussed this with a friend the other day who said that modern states would never impose themselves on areas of private life like this. I reminded him that in several European countries it’s necessary to choose a name from an approved list. None of this is to advocate a return to the claustrophobia of twitching curtains. Even less to trial by Twitter, which is crowd-sourced morality drawn from too narrow an electorate. I’m simply noting that when it comes to hard moral choices about death and when to move on, the wisdom of ages – with its endlessly refined sense of right and wrong – has a place.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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