Monday, August 31, 2009

Laws of Mourning

Several days ago, Edward M. (“Ted”) Kennedy, longtime Massachusetts Senator and head of his storied family, died after a battle with brain cancer. As has become common in the age of a 24-hour news cycle, the announcement of his death sparked a media frenzy which culminated in coverage of his funeral and burial. Certainly, in the public outpouring of affection for Senator Kennedy and grief at his loss, the media coverage of these events was tailored to Senator Kennedy himself. And yet, in other ways the coverage of his funeral is an essay on the accepted laws of mourning within the religiously pluralistic society that is the United States.

Senator Kennedy was a devout Catholic, as is the Kennedy family generally. The venue for his funeral was Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica in Boston, Massachusetts, where Senator Kennedy had worshipped. On this occasion, the viewing public was invited inside the Basilica in order to watch the funeral mass unfold, complete with eulogies by the Senator’s two sons as well as the President of the United States. In attendance were legendary political figures in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and mourners from all forms of religious backgrounds and beliefs. Much the same can be said of those who watched Senator Kennedy’s funeral on television. Indeed, the fact that his public funeral was conducted in the form of a Catholic funeral mass did not deter viewers of multiple backgrounds from watching the mass itself, along with the eulogies.

What lessons can be drawn from this? The primary lesson is that, even in a religiously pluralistic society such as the United States, there are accepted laws of mourning that make a space for religious rites, regardless of the religious beliefs of the person being mourned, and that the media has a direct role in reinforcing this.

In the days between Senator Kennedy’s death and his funeral, the media rebroadcast portions of the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy, which was similarly conducted in the form of a Catholic mass. The combination of political ceremony and religious ritual which was shown in video clips of RFK’s funeral and in Senator Kennedy’s funeral was also reminiscent of the more recent funerals of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and formed a continuum of understood practice within society for the mourning of political figures. Thus, although the United States prides itself on the separation of church and state as a matter of formal law, it can be seen that, in its societal laws of mourning, the religious beliefs of the person being mourned are respected as being central to mourning practices, and the public partakes of the particular religious practices of the deceased in order to mourn him appropriately. Media has reinforced this norm by making it possible for viewers of all faiths to partake of the funeral rites at issue. From public events of mourning like Senator Kennedy’s funeral, we can thus see a reinforcement of the respect for individual religious beliefs within a religiously pluralistic society.

For background information on the Kennedy funeral, please see

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