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The Death of a Friend

 

Martin Julier-Costes

Translated by Sara MacVane

To lose a friend isn’t just to engage with the same feelings and emotions which are common to all experiences of loss: a feeling of being wounded, of being isolated, of having lost the fixed landmarks of daily life. The shock we feel is more difficult to identify and to name, than when we lose a member of our own family. It may surprise us by the way it inhabits our inner-most being. Was the friend for whom we weep a part of our very self, so that now we feel diminished?

Jean-Marie Gueullette, « Reste auprès de moi mon frère. Vivre la mort d’un ami » (“Stay close beside me, brother. Experiencing the death of a friend.”)

There are many people who have lost a friend when they were young and still experience a painful sense of sorrow anchored deep within themselves many years later. As Jean-Marie Gueullette says, there are not many words or specific rituals to give form to this particular grief. However, if we observe youngsters grieving for a friend and ask them about it, they reveal practices and acts which help them make sense of their loss. They show “the great inventiveness which the living have with regard to the dead” (Despret[i] )

The death of a young person is banal and tragic at the same time, as unbearable as it is often brutal (suicide, an accident), and today when we expect to die old, it is also considered against the norm. I am going to try to propose some different ways of dealing with death here and to suggest how young people make sense of the loss of a friend. For when we are young, more than at any other age, a friend serves as an alter-ego, as one’s self in fact. My thoughts are based on an analysis of several dozen situations of grief. I do not want to make any generalizations about young people and their reactions to the death of a friend, but I do want to suggest some ways in which we might understand them. The situations are part of a doctoral research in sociology and a national research project on the role and use of internet in grief[ii]. My own orientation to these questions is socio-anthropological. My work follows up on that of Louis-Vincent Thomas, who shows us that so long as there is death, the living continue to waver between disorder and the reordering of the ties which bind them[iii], creating as many conflicts and divisions among themselves as they do times and spaces for peace-making and reassembling. Sociology[iv] describes what happens when someone dies (where, how, who….) and so allows us to understand how a particular context gives form to those reactions which anthropology considers universal human reactions to death: the gathering together of the living, preserving traces of the dead, giving the dead a local place, and maintaining a relationship with them.

A loss shared among friends

From these conversations, three essential dimensions help us understand and analyze this particular kind of grief: the funeral rites, the rituals put together in the group, and the personal experience of loss[v].

  1. The funeral rites include the deposition of the body in the coffin, the funeral ceremony and putting the coffin into the ground (or the scattering of the ashes, in the case of a cremation). The body of the deceased is present and the ceremony is open to the public.
  2. The rituals of the group are parallel and intrinsically related to the funeral. In this case however, those grieving take the initiative to organize a particular act apart from the formal funeral. They do this to underline specific qualities of their friend and their affection for the deceased. The body of the deceased is not present or, if there has been a cremation, the ashes may be. These ceremonies differ greatly according to the groups of which the deceased was part. For example: there may be an announcement, a toast, private parties, “anniversary” celebrations, a minute of silence, planting a tree at her/his school, sorting through the deceased things, reordering the friend’s room, exchange of emails and other messages on social media like Facebook.
  3. And finally, how does a young person deal with the death of a friend? What significance does he/she attribute to this loss? If we are to believe J-H Déchaux, the experience of grief today has an intimate dimension which he calls “death in and of itself”[vi]. Although this intimate response is less visible, it nonetheless fulfills a function. As they relegate their grief over the loss of their friend to a more intimate level, young people seek to control the temporary quality of grief. They want to decide for themselves what attributes to assign to their grief. In general they will reject anything which seems like an imposition or a duty. The meaning they give to a particular death is accessible only to them and for them, unless and until they choose to share it with others. As we will see, this necessarily involves a long period of grief.

Although every experience of grief is particular, it is expressed in three different areas. First of all grief is expressed at different times, in different places, and among people variously affected, according to the groups to which the individual who has died belonged (family, friends, school-mates, sport teams, internet). Together members of these groups participate in a collective expression of grief at the funeral service, but also in smaller groups, on other occasions, and in different places. The funeral does not exhaust the need of the young people to express their grief, and so, they will do so at home, during sports events, at musical events, at other gatherings, at school, by sending photos or videos by email, on internet, or in private.

 

Funeral Services

 

When a young person dies, it is often true that the body may be too badly damaged to be on view. The young people we talked to said that they did not really need to see the body, that it was enough for them to imagine it in the coffin. In fact, some of them had no desire at all to see the rigid cold body. They wish to keep hold of a picture of their friend alive, without any marks of a violent death. Later on they may speak about not having seen the body, with no second thoughts, and they will claim that this has not had any particular effect on their experience of grief.

 

On the other hand, when the coffin is open, most of the young people we spoke to did want to view the body. This constitutes an intense and formative experience for them. When the body is placed in the coffin, friends may choose to place objects in it (photos, CDs, iPods, presents, etc) as well as poems, thoughts, written testimony. These things may all represent pleasures and affections which friends recognize as belonging to the dead person. These marks of attention and respect around the body correspond to the separation phase which Van Gennep describes as intrinsic to rites of passage. The objects are placed around the body as though the individual were present, and they signify a desire to accompany the dead. One young girl stayed by her best friend’s bed for several days after the friend had drowned, breathing in his smell, caressing his hair, and speaking to him. In a funeral parlor, another young girl began to sing Céline Dion’s “Vole” to accompany her best friend on her journey to the afterlife.

 

Usually many friends come to the funeral, by the dozens, or in one case, even more than 200. Many also wish to speak, to read poems, or simply to say something about their friend. This means that the funeral service is longer than the usual half-hour, and may indeed go on even for 2 ½ hours. These funeral services, even the more simple ones, tend to include special additions in order to emphasize that the death of a young person is out-of-the-ordinary. The friends want to make the service more dramatic. The music may be registered or live (instruments, a DJ, etc). It goes the whole range from Evanescence to Bob Marley, by way of Metallic or Céline Dion (Titanic). Photos, usually slide shows, will show the deceased smiling, surrounded by friends in the midst of games or parties. The closest friends often sit with the family in the front row. Sometimes a group of friends will sit beside the coffin, facing the congregation, as though to associate themselves spatially and physically with their friend. It is not rare for friends to carry the coffin at the beginning or end of the service, or they may organize an honor guard. Sometimes they will remain alone with the coffin after the funeral service. These deeply symbolic gestures do not usually occur at the funerals of those who are older. Indeed, they signify that the death of a young person is an exception, and that the friends are among those most deeply moved.

During the burial, friends are also present. In one recent case, they had prepared a special music list for the event. It was piped out over a loud speaker as those present filed past the grave. There again, friends remained for some time at the site.

 

During the funeral, friends are very aware of the event, and take the spaces assigned to them. They know that the event is not theirs in the first instance. They establish a hierarchy of grief. They realize that there is no greater grief than the loss of a child and that this time belongs to the parents. Indeed many of them will visit the parents after the funeral and will continue to do that regularly, even many years afterwards.

 

Group rituals

 

These rituals are sometimes less in the public eye, but are even more significant to the friends. While the deceased’s parents may be present, it is friends who take the initiative.

 

One of these events is to announce the death. Friends gather in a cellar, around a bench, in an apartment, or in a place they all know. In these first moments their reaction is instinctive; they need to be together, to be united. Many of them envision their friend in the after-life and they want to bring the deceased back into the group as they face the loss of their alter-ego. Many of them sleep together as a group until the funeral, or even afterwards. The gathering also gives the friends a chance to begin planning the details of the funeral.

 

More commonly, these group gatherings begin right after the funeral or a few days later. They tend to be festive and may take the form of anything from a meal among friends to some grand event. If you ask them why, the answer is always the same: We need to be together again, to do what we have always done when our friend was alive, we need to party together. In order to make this happen, the group tends to include all those things which act as a bond for them: cigarettes, alcohol, soft drugs (or hard, but that is less common). These gatherings are “festive” in the sense that they re-use party props to help them recognize themselves as part of the group in the face of a deeply upsetting experience. By including food and drink, alcohol and possibly drugs, these young friends try to fill the void. In one situation which is particularly revealing, the young people danced around a fire and shouted and cried together. However outlandish or excessive these acts may be, they serve to compensate for the loss of a friend, to avert death, and to reinforce the ties among friends. The young people exert an overload of energy to compensate for their untenable loss and to make sense of it.

 

Friends, often together with family members, may also take charge of scattering the ashes of a friend who has been cremated. Today an example of this is scattering the ashes and leaving a plaque at the site of a fatal accident. Laetitia Nicholas has done work on “memorial boundary markers” – those bouquets of flowers left along the highways as markers of a death, usually the death of a young person. One group scattered their friend’s ashes in South America and Nepal. We shouldn’t see this choice as pathological or as a possible complication in the process of grieving, for in fact, the young people involved claimed that by scattering the ashes in various places, they were affirming that their friend belonged to different groups, in different parts of the world. A cemetery, on the other hand, may seem rigidly fixed and therefore unacceptable to friends, whether it is the site of a tomb or of an ash burial.

 

So far we have been considering the young person’s friends, but death involves all the groups to which the deceased belonged. It is quite usual for instance, for a sports club to offer words and gestures when one of their players dies. Team members may wear a black arm band, have a minute of silence, hold a game in honor of the deceased, or offer a toast. In these ways the team members also bring their lost member back into the group, in their own particular context. School too, is often a site for rituals when an adolescent or young adult dies. These initiatives are not usually very public. They tend to be simple: a specific reference to the deceased, a time for discussion in class, a personal letter, a meeting with the parents, attendance at the funeral, or a quiet moment.

 

The Personal Experience of Grief

 

According to J H Déchaux, one of the ways we deal with death today is to render it intimate, and young people have certainly taken on this characteristic.

 

Writing is very much part of their grief and takes the form of a journal or a notebook. Here the written work particularly calls forth the dead friend and engages in an imaginary dialogue. Other intimate elements might include: consulting the mobile phone in order to hear the dead person’s voice in the recorded response, rereading SMS, or even sending SMS to the dead person, as a way to make that friend present. We’ll come back to this later. In a similar way friends say that they feel their lost friend’s presence and/or recognize him/her in a particular song. Some say that their friend appears in their dreams, at first as terribly unhappy or menacing, and then over time, at peace.

 

Some say that they have constructed little personal altars in their rooms or at the doorway of their apartment. It is at these altars that their personal rituals take place: lighting a candle, sitting in front of it, abstaining from doing something particular, either at a given time, or just whenever the friend comes to mind. One young boy said that when his best friend died, his first instinct was to rush to the friend’s room and smell his pillow, because he knew that the odor left behind would disappear very quickly. Nowadays friends may wear some of the clothes or get a tattoo in honor of their friend, in order to mark their bodies and incorporate the dead friend into themselves. In one extreme but significant case, a young girl scattered a friend’s ashes on herself, saying: “In this way, you will always be a part of me.” By the act of plunging her hands into the ashes of her friend, putting them on herself, and saying those words, she created an act of passage (Le Breton) to give meaning and dignity to her loss. Another illustration is the young girl who called herself “the young widow” after her friend committed suicide. She told me that then she undertook a period of sexual abstinence, and that some male friends “protected” her for several months when other boys wanted to seduce her. By creating a period of sexual abstinence as a sign of the separation created by death, this young woman appropriated for herself at a very intimate level one of the essential functions of ritual. At the level of the group, her two male friends took on a role found in many religious traditions in relations to widowhood.

 

The Death of a Friend in Digital Times

 

As they are enthusiasts of digital apps and internet[vii], young people use these when one of the group dies, usually to reassure each other of their mutual support, and to maintain a sense of continuity with the dead friend, there where their sense of rupture is strongest. They send out videos in honor of their friend on Dailymotion and Youtube, which then elicit comments or expressions of solidarity. The friend’s Facebook page or a specially created memorial page will be inundated with messages for the group and especially for the deceased. When it is used in this way, the Facebook page takes on the function of a tomb situated in a different sort of space. It makes the loss particular within a shared collective space, and renders the grief accessible and thus public.

 

Many young people continue to call their friend for as long as the telephone number is active; they send SMS and leave voice messages. They listen to their friend’s voice, look at messages and photos in the phone’s archives. Few of them will be able to completely stop using these forms of contact, even several months later. Having grown-up in a super-interconnected world, young people take control of their loss with the technical and symbolic means available to them, particularly through images. Although “selfies at funerals” are not that common, the way young people use them on internet reveals an easy relationship with pictures as a source of meaning. If they take the photo before or during the funeral and post it with a photo of their friend as the background, these young people associate themselves symbolically with their dead friend, and this is a universal practice, now ritualized with new technology. Their messages are expressed in the present tense, as though their friend were still among them and could see them, hear them and understand their messages. The friends create and then file digital traces that they can then consult when they want to; they show that they are willing to take on the job of creating a memorial and make it visible and accessible to the public on internet. Like the widows who once made a death symbolically visible in the choice of jewelry and clothing, these young people walk around today with the traces of their dead friend on their smart phones.

 

While the use of digital apps and internet is not limited to young people, they make evident phenomena which are also present among other age groups, as they so often do. One of the most common characteristics in the death of a young person is violence (accidents, suicide) which makes it impossible to view the body. This is also usually the first time that these young friends will have experienced death, so for them it is a sign of their passage into adulthood, which they make visible with photographs, as they become aware that their friend will remain young, while they will grow old.

 

 

[i] Despret, Vinciane (2014) « Les morts utiles ». Terrain, 62, pp. 4-23

[ii] L’Agence Nationale de la Recherche – Projet Eneid : Eternités Numeriques. Les identités numériques post mortem et les usages mémoriaux innovants du web au peisme du genre.

[iii] Thomas, Louis-Vincent (1975), Anthropologie de la mort, Payot, Paris.

[iv] Clavandier, Gaëlle (2009), Sociologie de la mort, Vibre et mourir dans la société contemporaine. Armand Colin,Paris ; Roudaut, Karine (2012), Ceux qui restent. Une sociologie du deuil. Rennes : PU Rennes.

[v] Julier-Costes, M., « La mort d’un proche. Paroles et corps face à l’absence » in Codes, corps et rituels dans la culture jeune, PU de Laval, Coll. Sociologie au coin de la rue, pp. 63-70 ; « Le monde des morts chez les jeunes » in Etudes sur la mort, Paris, n° 142, pp. 125-145.

[vi] Déchaux, Jean-Huges, « La mort n’est jamais familière. Propositions pour dépasser le paradigme du déni social » Pennec (dir), Des vivants et des morts. Des constructions de la « bonne mort »Brest, ARS-CRBC, UBO, pp.17-26.

[vii] Lachance, Jocelyn (2013), Photos d’ados à l’ère du numérique, PUL/Hermann, Québec/Paris.

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a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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