Bearing the pall is an honored ritual in western funerary traditions according to which typically the most intimate friends and family members of the departed carry the casket that cloaks and contains the bodily remains. Until recently I thought of this as a rather instrumental ritual, activated largely by the pragmatic need to transport the body from one place to another in solemn and decorous fashion. This past spring, however, my mother passed away at the age of 83 and I came to realize the larger symbolic significance of literally touching the coffin, of making physical contact with the deceased, even if only by proxy and separated by the ritualistic container. I can’t say that I have the words to describe the actual feeling accurately, but there was something powerfully transcendent about it—almost as if I was making contact with a different plane of existence.
My experience was personal and private and I haven’t discussed it with anyone until now. Nevertheless, I was reminded of it by this photograph of Senator Edward Kennedy lying in repose at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. The individuals kneeling at the coffin are five female family members, but in the visual tableau of the photograph they function as faceless surrogates for the thousands of anonymous members of the public who stood in line for hours just for the opportunity to pass the casket on the other side of a velvet rope and to pay their last respects to a life dedicated to national public service. The photograph underscores the solemnity of the occasion—heads bowed, hands folded, and notice how the pall is illuminated in a space otherwise shrouded by shadows cast by the backlit scene—but more than that it channels an ineffable, transcendent, affective sense of belonging that is arguably essential to communal life, animated here by decorously “touching” the coffin with our eyes.
The photograph above was the first image in the NYT’s “Pictures of the Day” for August 25, 2009. The second picture in that slide show was of the funeral procession for Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an influential Shiite theologian and the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq who had died of lung cancer.
The NYT employs the two photographs to make the point that “very different” leaders—one quintessentially western, the other quintessentially eastern—were mourned in “very different ways,” contrasting the rational and decorous “solemnity of the public farewell to Senator Kennedy” as “thousands of visitors continued to line up to pay their respects,” with the unfettered “emotion of the public farewell” to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim marked by the “thousands [who] poured into the streets amid tight security.”
And indeed, the normative differences and implications of the two photographs are surely pronounced, as one displays a scene that is apparently stately and reserved, a modicum of order and restraint, while the other purports to reveal a dangerous mob “pouring into the street” and warranting “tight security.” In one image the facial markers of emotional expression are hidden from view as the faces of the individuals cannot be seen, either turned away from the camera and directing attention to the coffin or veiled by distance and dark shadows. In the other image, however, shot in the harsh light of day, facial expressions of intense emotion are prominent and pronounced, not least the man in the very center of the image who appears to be bearing much of the weight of the coffin and crying out in grief. And there are other differences as well, as one image genders the public it displays as passively female, the other aggressively male.
And yet for all of the differences what stands out most in need of comment is the profound similarity between the two photographs as each indicates a ritual of mourning predicated on making a direct, affective connection between a surviving public and its deceased leaders as a performative, transcendent marker of civic identity. Call it “solemnity” or call it “emotion,” the simple fact is that communal life demands affective connections. If we are going to come to terms with the profound tensions between east and west we might not find a better place to start than in acknowledging and taking account of this radical similarity.
Photo Credits: Damon Winters/NYT; Loay Hameed/AP