Death and Community Responses: Comfort, Community, and Culture

William J Hauser & Annemarie Scarisbrick-Hauser. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The last decade of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st century witnessed a number of large-scale traumatic events that caused communities to come together in an effort to understand the events and to find ways to return the social order to a state of normalcy. Events such as the death of Princess Diana, the shootings at Columbine High School, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, caused communities from the local to the global level to unite in an attempt to understand the tragedy, grieve over the loss of lives, and then find a way to return to normal behaviors. Because of the magnitude of these events and because they are viewed across the entire country and world, institutionalized responses are an important and expected factor in the healing of both the individual’s and community’s wounds.

In a time of social crisis, individuals look for explanations for what has occurred and for approval from others to return to their patterned day-to-day living (Fritz 1961; Marx and McAdam 1996). Whether it is a natural disaster such as a hurricane, tornado, or earthquake, or a man-made event such as a fire, chemical spill, or act of terrorism, each community affected by the event manifests some type of response to the death of its citizens. Large-scale institutionalized community responses fulfill these needs. They create a common ground from which individuals derive common meanings. They allow bereaved individuals to share their grief with others facing the same circumstances. Not only does this process provide support to the individual and community, it enables the grieving individuals to express their emotions without fear of feeling or acting differently from others around them. Most important, institutionalized responses offer a socially acceptable direction for the members of the community to follow in order to return to an acceptable level of comfort (Alexander 1984; Scarisbrick-Hauser 1990).

From a sociological perspective, the importance of these institutionalized responses cannot be understated. Durkheim (1915) posits that there must be some form of collective response to the disruption of social life and its processes to allow society to acknowledge the damage or pollution and then repair the social system. The need to repair this damage brings about the need for collective or institutionalized commitment toward cleansing, closure, and renewal (Mueller 1980). Accordingly, Douglas (1966) suggests that these institutionalized public rituals facilitate a collective expression of grief and sadness that helps people deal with the crisis, reaffirm their belief in the social system, and place the pollution of the fatalities, the damage and social disruption, and their sense of outrage and anger into historical context. Therefore, these rituals enable a community to achieve closure and then move forward.

Ritualistic Community Cleansing

Current research on the need to understand the resumption of socio-organizational processes following an interruption to regular social behavior is firmly anchored in the classic work of Quarantelli (1978). According to Dynes and Tierney (1996), this research demonstrates that “even in what others see as chaotic and antisocial, there is the persistence of socially structured behavior” (p. 14).

Following the experience of a disaster or large-scale traumatic event, individuals may not be able to determine relationships between themselves and other elements in the community environment. In addition, they may not be able to identify the contextual meanings of the now-disrupted social situation. Meaningful social interaction is damaged and results in what Ball-Rokeach (1973) defines as persuasive ambiguity of the situation or the inability to establish meaningful links between events in a total social situation. In disrupted social situations such as geophysical disasters, plane crashes, or terrorist attacks, efforts must be made to resolve fundamental questions of meaning, such as understanding what is happening and why. According to Ball-Rokeach, attention must be placed on solving the problem but with the assumption that the group or community has the motivation to resolve the ambiguity, handle the stress, and resume meaningful social action. Thus the ambiguity is resolved when a person or community of individuals constructs a new definition of the situation.

Jeffrey C. Alexander (1984) states that a society responds to a crisis in a functionally predictable and sequential manner with the level of community response dependent on the presence of five factors. First, the event must have a significant impact on the community so that members demonstrate a strong social opinion or consensus that something extraordinary has polluted the normal ebb and flow of societal life. Second, the government must evaluate the scope and consequences of the event in conjunction with the public response and then decide whether or not the polluting event has a harmful effect on core social values. Third, institutional social controls must be operationalized to respond to the situation. Fourth, as more diversified groups become involved in the resolution of the event, the potential for power struggles must be considered. Fifth, after the first four stages have been acted on, the public is ready to participate in the ritual of community cleansing and renewal.

Lewis and Veneman (1987) and Scarisbrick-Hauser (1990) expand on Alexander’s work by proposing that responses to crisis occur in temporally defined patterns or rituals. These institutionalized rituals of community purification include, but are not limited to, public statements, site visits, religious and secular memorial services, public funeral services, pilgrimages, and fund-raising activities. Individually and collectively, these processes help to functionally reintegrate members into the community and concurrently turn the community’s attention to symbolically accepting the damage, placing closure around the event, and re-creating a collective definition of social reality.

Although all these factors are designed to provide comfort, a sense of community, or an affirmation of the culture, there are differences between the secular and sacred dimensions of this typology. On the secular side, community responses include public statements, visits to the site, moments of silence at major public events in any of the community zones affected, government inquiries, crime scene investigations, the establishment of fund-raising campaigns, and the introduction of songs and poems inspired by the event. Financial, personal, and psychological counseling areas are also established as part of a larger emergency incident management process.

Responses on the sacred side include public prayers, nondenominational and religious services, pilgrimages to the site, establishment of shrines (including tokens left by visitors), funeral services at the site of event or in special locations, floral bouquets, anniversary memorial services, and memorial dedications. Although the line between church and state is well differentiated in the United States, local government is included in this group. Representatives of the local government usually attend every funeral; visit those in hospital; go to the homes of the victims’ families at their request for comfort; counsel families, relatives, and friends where necessary; and participate in many of the religious ceremonies as either service readers, servers, pall bearers, or attendants at graveside services.

Comfort, Community, and Culture

As previously mentioned, institutional responses to large-scale disasters or grieving events are centered on returning the community to its normal social order as soon as possible. This organic solidarity is predicated on the fact the members of the community are, first, seeking meaning for the event that occurred and, second, looking for approval from others in the group that it is to move forward with their lives. Thus the institutionalized community response to the event must serve a number of functions. It must provide members of the community with some form of explanation or meaning for the event. It must demonstrate shared feelings among the participants and allow them a means to release their emotions in a controlled environment. Finally, institutionalized responses must create a comfort zone for the participants based on cultural attitudes and values familiar to the individual and shared by the group.

With these provisions in mind, institutionalized responses center around three dimensions. The first is providing comfort to the bereaved and grieving community. Second is the ability to return people to and maintain a sense of community. Third, and most important, is the integration of cultural values and behaviors that help maintain the social order and provide the socially accepted framework around the grieving process and return to normal behavior.

The immediate purpose of an institutional response is to provide the members of the community with a way to express their emotions or feelings over the loss or losses. In many cases, large, inexplicable, and unexpected events create a state of anomie in which the individual does not comprehend what has happened, how it happened, or why it happened. More important, the individual does not have a repertoire of norms to rely on to dictate how he or she should feel or act. Thus institutionalized community responses create a structured process that enables the individual to express grief but in an environment that is socially acceptable and shared.

Shared grieving in a socially controlled environment is beneficial to the individual in a number of ways. First, the structure of the bereavement process provides the individual a comfort zone in which to express emotions. Ritualized practices, such as prayers, songs, speeches, and moments of silence allow the individual to grieve in an environment where the behavior will not be singled out or viewed as unacceptable. Second, the structured rituals provide direction, if not meaning, to the individuals involved. Where the actual event may have left individuals searching for an explanation, structured ritual responses provide both a definition of the current situation and a guide for future behavior. Third, the collective responses provide direct and indirect support to those involved. They allow the individual to directly seek and receive support from those around him or her. At the same time, watching others going through the same process enables the individual to feel that he or she is doing the right thing and, also, is part of a collective group of mourners.

The second dimension of the institutionalized process is to reinforce and enhance a sense of community. By demonstrating that the grief is collectively shared, individuals become acutely aware that others around them are not only feeling the same pain but also looking for the same explanations and a direction for the future. Institutional responses bring the community together for a common purpose, for at least a short period of time. Community differences and issues are temporarily set aside as all share in the collective grief. It is also common for members of the community to band together to find solutions for problems—often, problems different from those that caused the traumatic situation. This spirit of cooperation becomes a socially acceptable response that creates solidarity in the community, which gives community members something to focus their attention on and a sense of hope for the future.

The third dimension, culture, is the social glue that bonds all the processes together. Unexpected events such as disasters not only produce high levels of grief but also magnify anxiety and the fear of an unknown future. When this occurs, there is a need to find a moral anchor around which to stabilize the community’s attitudes and actions. This was strongly evidenced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, tragedies in the United States. Individuals and communities looking for meaning and direction relied heavily on existing social institutions and values. Institutions such as religion and the family dramatically emerged in an attempt to re-create social equilibrium. Religiosity and spiritualism increased as a way to provide solace and meaning. Community responses, such as memorial services, became ecumenical in an attempt to unite a community of victims. At the same time, families became the medium through which coping with the situation was defined, shared, and acted on. At the heart of all this is the feeling that bonding in a family environment is the natural thing to do in response to the uncertainty of the recent and, more uncertain, future events.

In conjunction with the emergence of the social institutions, traditional societal values surfaced and provided communities a foundation on which to share feelings and behaviors. The patriotic fervor that arose immediately after September 11, 2001, permeated almost all aspects of U.S. society. The norms that emerged dictated that differences be set aside and communities unite in one common front against the perpetrators. Most important, this patriotism provided the communities with the rituals and artifacts needed in the grieving process. Whether it was a temporary shrine at a disaster site, a memorial service, a rock concert, or even a sporting event, all were anchored in a serious display of patriotism. Not only did this help the grieving process, it united communities from the core level to the national level and provided a socially approved way to release anxiety, fear, and anger.

It is important to remember that comfort, community, and culture are not mutually exclusive dimensions of an institutionalized community response. They are interdependent, and one cannot exist without the others. Each is needed, both separately and in combination with the others, to provide meaning and direction to members of the community. Each plays an essential role in providing community stability during a time of uncertainty. Most important, each provides a common, socially approved way for members of the community to grieve their losses with the knowledge that others are sharing in the same anguish and pain. It then provides a communal way of dealing with the problems and eventually returning to a level of comfort that things are approaching some sense of normalcy.

Definition of Community

Before one can examine the institutionalized responses to grieving, it is important to define the community environment in which these responses take place. The concept of community is multidimensional and can range from a relatively small group to the “global” community. Based on the work of Fritz (1961), we define communities according to their geographical and social relationship to the event. This system allows us to better define the types of actions that take place by taking into consideration the community’s socioemotional proximity to the event.

At the base level is the core community directly affected by the event. This core area or community is traditionally identified as “ground zero.” In the case of the shootings at Columbine High School, this is the community of Littleton, Colorado. The actual events directly affected members of this community, and both the high school and memorial sites are constant reminders of the traumatic events. Moving one level out is the community or communities surrounding the core community. In the case of Columbine High School, these are the communities in the greater Denver metropolitan area. Although not directly involved with the events, these communities share a strong association with the members of the Littleton community (e.g., family members, friends, coworkers). The next level consists of the state or regional community. In this case, the state of Colorado is the legal community for investigating and punishing the deviant behavior and at the same time is a supportive, emotional community responding to the loss of “their” students and teacher.

One level removed from the state and regional zone is the national community. Although the nation, as a whole, may be physically removed from the actual events and the personal bereavement process, there is a substantial amount of mourning over the loss of lives. Most important, there is a concern that a similar event can occur in other communities across the nation and possibly in one’s own hometown. At this level, local events originally viewed as private community problems now become public issues. As the event gains more national recognition as a public issue, a collective call for action moves it to the next community level, the national government. At this stage, the national political and legislative community decides whether the event is random and localized or is in need of a national investigation and some form of sanctioning.

Depending on the severity and scope of the tragedy, the international community may also become involved. The terrorist attacks in the United States were responded to very quickly by the international community in expressions of sympathy, outrage, mourning, and calls to action. It is important to remember that although the disaster occurred in New York City, in Washington, D.C., and in the skies over Pennsylvania, in the United States, the event immediately became international in scope. Whether it was outrage over the number of lives lost, anger and grief over the deaths of their citizens working in the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, or the fear that these events could happen again, but this time in their country, the international community immediately viewed the events of September 11, 2001 as a global issue. Finally, if the event achieves large-scale recognition that requires international debate and diplomacy, it achieves the final level, the international political community. The actions on September 11, 2001, continue to cause international political debate and discussion as to the most socially appropriate responses (e.g., negotiation, reprisals, war) to it. As a matter of fact, the recent U.S.-led war against Iraq and the international debate over it are direct examples of the continuing responses to the events of September 11, 2001.

Historically, these different community levels have tended to be relatively independent of each other, especially as one moves farther away from the core community. Less than 100 years ago, it may have taken the news of a tragedy days to spread across the United States and weeks around the globe. With the advent of today’s instantaneous telecommunications, it is extremely difficult to isolate a disaster to one core community. Depending on the severity of the event, coverage will be elevated almost immediately to state, national, and international communities. Thus, to varying degrees, all observers become a member of that community.

The media play an essential role in defining the level of community responses to grief. The importance and depth of coverage that the media place on the tragedy create the parameters by which others perceive the severity of the event and help those outside the core community to decide whether the event is specific only to that community or something that could also affect their own community. Because many of these events begin with a period of normlessness and confusion, the media serve as the informational and definitional gatekeepers—that is, the more the media view the event as a large-scale social crisis, the greater the likelihood that other communities at the national and international levels will do likewise.

Types of Events

In most cases, institutionalized grieving is a response to a significant and unexpected event or disaster. These events run the continuum from natural to man-made disasters. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes, tend to be localized and elicit community responses that are immediate and direct. Because most of these events are extraordinary and uncontrollable, individual and community responses tend to emphasize resolving the immediate situation, mourning the losses, and rebuilding individual lives and the community.

Man-made disasters, on the other hand, tend to manifest a different level of socioemotional attachment. Was it an unintended accident such as a chemical leak, train crash, or multifatality apartment fire? Or was it a planned act of aggression or terrorism (e.g., plane bombing, suicide bombing, building explosions)? Accidents, not unlike natural disasters, can be viewed at a level of deviance that is unintentional and, although requiring sanctioning, can be normalized after a period of communal mourning and adjustment.

Planned man-made disasters are at the extreme end of the socioemotional continuum. Acts of aggression and terrorism directly alter the social fabric of the community and elicit the need for a response to identify and punish those who planned and carried out the event. The community, in this case, can feel healed only when the guilty parties are apprehended and punished. Thus justice is served, the deviance corrected, and closure takes place.

Understanding the differences in types of events is essential to understanding how communities will respond to them. The community bereavement process for natural disasters is substantially different than for acts of aggression or terrorism. For example, institutionalized responses to natural disasters emphasize mourning the loss of lives and property and then looking for ways to minimize the possibility of a similar occurrence in the future. Man-made disasters, on the other hand, are viewed as more devious and in need of a direct response. In the case of a man-made accident, the response is to punish the guilty parties and to investigate ways to prevent comparable accidents from happening again. Meaning is attached to the event, and socially acceptable ways to achieve closure are defined. Community members then move from intense grieving to recovery and reorganization.

Acts of aggression elicit the most socioemotional fervor in the community and are also the hardest to deal with. It is more difficult to place meaning around the event and understand the reasons the act was perpetrated. At the same time, anger quickly becomes a dominant response as the community tries to justify the loss of lives of innocent victims as an outcome of a group’s social, religious, or political cause. In this case, community responses, while still mourning the lives of the victims, focus on the need for solidarity as a way to collectively understand and deal with the problem. One very important anchor in this process is for the community to place a strong emphasis on its cultural values—for example, patriotism, freedom, diversity. This was very strongly evidenced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, tragedies.

Community Grieving Processes

To observe commonalities in the ritualized institutional community responses, in the remainder of this chapter, we will examine a number grieving processes used in large-scale disasters or traumatic events that occurred during the past decade. These events include the death of Princess Diana, the Hillsborough (England) soccer disaster, the Oklahoma City bombing, the shootings at Columbine High School, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. In examining these institutionalized processes, it is important to understand the order in which these processes take place and how each is uniquely structured to deal with both communities and individuals.

Public Statements

Most public statements are issued within hours of the event. The larger the scale of the event, the greater the expectation that the leader of the community or society will speak to calm the society, nation, the world. That the leader does speak to the nation is a confirmation of the gravity of the event and permits the media to treat the event as a major issue.

In the case of Princess Diana, the protocol surrounding the expected institutionalized community response to Diana’s untimely death did not work well. Most residents of England and Europe were asleep when her death was announced and awoke the next morning to the news. Surprisingly, nothing was heard officially from the Queen until days after Diana’s body had been returned from France. Because, in the Queen’s eyes, Diana was no longer a member of the inner circle of the Royal Family, the Queen did not make a public statement acknowledging Diana’s death until days later. This delay evoked strong public criticism, and it was Prime Minister Tony Blair who ensured that Diana was treated with respect. Both the depth of public grief and the expectation of a community response for “the People’s Princess” by both the British and international communities were severely underestimated by the Royal Family (Kantrowitz, Pederson, and McGuire 1997).

On the other hand, the 1989 Hillsborough soccer disaster, a crush of hundreds of fans against steel barriers at one end of a soccer stadium, was viewed as the horror unfolded on national and international television, with 95 fans slowly dying in full view of some of their family members. The Queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher quickly took to the airways and made statements to comfort and calm the public. In the weeks that followed, many dignitaries and religious leaders spoke to the nation and the Liverpool community, offering comfort and acknowledging that they shared in the grief and suffering.

In the United States, 168 people, including 19 children, tragically lost their lives following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. The nature of the attack, the lack of knowledge about the perpetrators, and the fear of an international terrorist attack, combined with a rescue and recovery effort, riveted the nation’s attention on this event. Even while frantic attempts were taking place to evacuate buildings and rescue trapped citizens, the governor of Oklahoma and President Clinton immediately issued statements of support and sympathy. Many days were spent hoping for more rescues from the building, but as time moved on, a carefully scripted series of statements were made, usually by the governor or his senior officials, about the need to acknowledge that there might not be additional rescues and that there would be time when rescue would move to recovery.

Similarly, on April 20, 1998, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, a suburb of Denver, Colorado, staged an ambush, killing 12 students and one teacher in the process. Both gunmen then committed suicide. Many of the events at Columbine High School were broadcast live on television with views of injured children hanging out of windows or lying on the grass outside the school building. These images evoked national statements of support for the families who had lost children, a condemnation of the use of guns, and a call to address a perceived decline in family values. The governor of Colorado and President Clinton made national statements designed to comfort and reassure the nation that they would take every step to make sure that children were safe in their schools.

Finally, the events of September 11, 2001, were still occurring when President Bush made a national public statement about the plane crashes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The president was as yet unaware of the impending Pentagon or Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crashes. In that early statement, Mr. Bush put the country on notice that it was under attack and that a societal disruption of a large proportion had occurred, and he demanded an appropriate response. At the same time, Mayor Rudy Giuliani became the official spokesperson for the New York World Trade Center attacks. He made regular public statements and offered instructions in a calm manner to those anxious for information. Nationally, all regularly scheduled television programs were preempted as the country struggled to understand and comprehend the events.

Memorial and Religious Services

Following the death of Princess Diana, every possible communication medium in England and, to a lesser extent, around the world was devoted to coverage of her life and death. Her passing, whether regarded as important or unimportant, was the main topic of discussion on both formal and informal communication pathways. Thousands lined up, sometimes for up to 12 hours, to sign the traditional books of condolence. Originally, 6 books were opened up for signature, but 43 books were actually signed. It was estimated that up to 750,000 people signed the books in England alone (Kantrowitz et al. 1997).

On the day of Diana’s funeral, hundreds of thousands of mourners lined the procession route to pay respect and follow the ceremony. Because millions were expected to converge in London for the funeral, two giant television screens were erected in Hyde Park, permitting a crowd of over 100,000 to watch the event. After some days of confusion over the scope of the funeral, 2,000 people were invited to attend, including an international array of statesmen, government representatives, pop stars, and other individuals whose lives she had touched. Shops, banks, cinemas, and other businesses were closed during the hours of the funeral. Most sporting events were canceled. Globally, the event was viewed in 187 countries in 44 different languages.

Within 3 hours of the Hillsborough soccer disaster, flowers and wreaths were laid at the entrance to Liverpool Football stadium. The following day, the gates to the stadium were opened to permit people to sit in the stands, to mourn, and to lay flowers, teddy bears, team scarves, and other items on the playing field. The Salvation Army played religious hymns, especially the lament “Abide With Me.” The stadium stayed open for 12 hours a day for the next 2 weeks. During this time, over half the field was covered with floral tributes and the terraces were draped in team scarves sent by football clubs in England, Ireland, and Europe. An area was established to walk around the field and pray. In Liverpool, city council officials stepped in to assist the families of the deceased and the injured. The Liverpool City Council then announced that it would pay the funeral expenses for each of the victims, if necessary. This included assistance with organizing the funerals and traveling to Sheffield to bring back the bodies of the victims. During this time, the ashes of 20 of the 95 victims were interred around one of the floral-covered goal areas. To this day, floral tributes are left at the gate of the stadium or on the field to celebrate the birthday, wedding anniversary, or some other special occasion of a victim. It is important to remember that this was not the scene of the accident, but as the club’s home field, it was sanctified to serve as a cemetery for many of the victims.

On the other hand, the Oklahoma City bombing did not lend itself as easily to institutionalized rituals as did the others. First, the site was a crime scene and was off-limits to the public. Entertainment and sporting events in the area were immediately called off. As the bodies were recovered during the weeks following the disaster, funeral services took place, with the grieving families constantly in public view as the national and global communities shared their plight.

The memorial events following the Columbine High School massacre are a strong example of the positive outcome of memorial services. The night of the attack, the students assembled with their parents, teachers, and friends for an evening service to honor the dead, to acknowledge the terrible event, to pray for the injured, and to begin the healing process. Because the school building, technically a crime scene, was also a disaster area with booby-trapped bombs and bloodstained walls, floors, and furniture, it was closed for the rest of the regular session, so students could not congregate there to mourn their friends. The car park, on the other hand, was not considered part of the crime scene, and the students gathered there to grieve as a community. The funerals were attended by hundreds of mourners, some of who attended multiple funerals in a single day. Each funeral was televised in its entirety on national television.

Finally, the total international impact of the events of September 11th is still unknown, but it remains an ongoing intensely emotional experience. Citizens of the global community created impromptu services and ceremonies not only to honor the victims of the attack but to show support for the United States. For example, thousands of people gathered in many European countries and held candles in a silent vigil the night of the attacks. In England, the Queen’s regimental band showed support for stateside friends when it played the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” in front of the Queen.

In local communities across the nation, memorial tributes occurred daily for the first 6 months following the events. Children, for example, set up lemonade stands within days to raise funds for the parentless children of the tragedy. Badges of red, white, and blue popped up overnight, and the American flag flew from houses, cars, buses, and buildings. Comedy shows and most advertisements, particularly those featuring the World Trade Center towers, were taken off the air for a number of weeks after September 11th. Television and radio shows were programmed to be reflective, introspective, caring, and patriotic. Patriotic songs were the order of the day, and both comedians and sociopolitical critics were uncharacteristically quiet. As advertisements began to reappear on the media, they took the form of messages of support and public service announcements of upcoming fund-raising events.

Because of the catastrophic damage, many of the bodies have never been recovered. In some cases, survivors held memorial services or continued to wait for the final recovery of loved ones (if possible). In the case of the World Trade Center, as bodies were recovered, the institutionalized ritual called for the body to be draped with an American flag with all work coming to a halt and the workers silent in respect to the victim or a fallen comrade.

Closure Ceremony

Eventually the time comes to bring closure to the massive expressions of mourning and grief in the community, be it local or international. Usually 7 to 10 days following the event, an announcement is made that there will be a final large memorial service attended by the highest leaders in both the secular and religious echelons of society. The general public is urged to watch the event on television with large television screens and audio facilities being erected outside for those who cannot gain entrance into the venue. The religious service makes a point of highlighting the name of every person who died during the ceremony. The community leader then urges the members of the community to return to their normal flow of life. This is the official community acknowledgement that now there is closure regarding the disruption caused by the event.

The funeral of Princess Diana marked official closure of mourning in the community. After the removal of the body to the Spencer family estate and the private burial services, the formal grieving process was complete. On a societal level, the closure signified that the members of the community were to return to their normal activities and business.

The final memorial service conducted for the Hillsborough disaster victims took place in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on Saturday, April 29, 1989. Admittance to the service was limited to ticket holders only. Television and radio announcements urged people to stay home and watch the service instead of converging on the scene. In anticipation of enormous crowds wishing to view the ceremony, however, the cathedral staff erected large television screens outside the cathedral. The service was attended by every high-ranking government and religious official. A memorial stone marking the event was dedicated during the service, and children decorated the stone with flowers. St. George’s Bell, housed in the Anglican Cathedral and tolled only in times of war and national disasters, rang out 95 times across the City of Liverpool as the families laid floral tributes. Later the same day, a ferry carrying children of Liverpool players, religious leaders, and families of the victims set out across the Mersey River. Once in the channel, prayers were said, and 95 floral tributes, constructed from the flowers left at the stadium, were tossed in the Mersey in a final tribute.

In the case of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, a nationally televised ceremony was held in National Cathedral, Washington, D.C. on September 24, 2001. Past and present government officials and religious leaders representing each of the major world religions attended the event. The audience also included members of the families of victims and emergency personnel who had worked at the disaster sites. An imam of the Islamic faith was first to speak, followed by the other religious officials. President Bush spoke of the need to grieve and the need to seek restitution but also called for the country to begin the process of returning to business as usual, saying that the time had come to go back to work.

Visits and Pilgrimages

A visit is viewed as an information-seeking activity. A pilgrimage involves an intense desire to go to the place and join in a religious experience present in the area. Dignitaries, leaders, and religious figures are expected to visit the site to reaffirm the public perception of the polluting nature of the event. Religious leaders are more likely to conduct formal services during their visits, and visits from dignitaries may also serve as comfort to those working in the victim recovery area of operations. Hundreds of thousands of visitors have visited the Oklahoma City bombing site. New York City built special viewing areas so that people could visit the site of the World Trade Center. Following the Columbine disaster, the school library and cafeteria were remodeled to remove any architectural reminder of the event. Every year, 13 crosses are erected near the school to provide a memorial site to remember the victims.

Since the untimely death of Princess Diana, much heated debate has taken place on a fitting memorial. Many video and literary tributes have been produced in her memory and a number of charitable activities take place through the foundation established in her name. Agreement on a fitting permanent memorial project was finally reached in February 2003, but no timeline has been established for its construction.


Within hours of an event such as the Oklahoma City bombing or the September 11, 2001 attacks, disaster emergency services typically broadcast requests for blood and money to provide rescue supplies to the teams deployed to the site. In addition, it is also very common for the entertainment industry to get involved and participate in fund-raising programs for victims of a tragedy or for charity. Pop stars organize concerts and release records to bring in money. Recognizable VIPS make television and radio appeals for assistance. For example, Elton John released the single “Candle in the Wind” for charity following services for Princess Diana. Gerry and the Pacemakers released a special version of “Ferry Across the Mersey” to honor the Hillsborough victims. Students from Columbine High School released a song called “Columbine” to honor the victims of the disaster, and Paul McCartney wrote and released a the single “Freedom” to honor the victims of the September 11, 2001, tragedies.

Permanent Memorials

There are certain events that society agrees must be remembered by some physical marker, usually at the scene of the event that will last for posterity. A physical memorial is the link to the past and the record for history and is something demanded by cultural mores. The Gardens of Remembrance have been created in the grounds of Kensington Palace as a temporary gathering place and memorial to Princess Diana. In addition, numerous buildings and establishments carry her name. Her family has built a museum, housed on her family estate and open to the public for 7 weeks a year, that describes her life in an autobiographical display. New varieties of flowers dedicated to Diana have also been registered in her name. The Princess Diana permanent memorial will involve a football-field sized, oval-shaped stone water fountain located in Hyde Park, London, near a popular area in the park for daily tourist and local traffic.

The Liverpool soccer stadium is the official physical monument to the Hillsborough soccer disaster victims. The stadium is the final resting place for 23 of the 95 victims of the disaster and also serves as the shrine following the disaster. Interestingly, officials of the Sheffield Wednesday Football Club in Hillsborough, Sheffield, where the accident occurred, refused to erect any memorials on their property. Families of victims are permitted to visit and leave tributes at the scene of the accident following special arrangements with management; however, no club representatives will meet with them. A member of the grounds crew escorts them to and from the field.

The actual bombsite of the Oklahoma City bombing has become the centerpiece of the memorial. There was a strongly expressed need to memorialize those who died and to maintain the memory of the horrifying nature of the event. It took 5 years of community discussion, debate, and conflict with the victims’ families to resolve the issue and establish a permanent memorial.

In 2000, Oklahoma City dedicated the memorial, opening the area and the museum on April 19 following an observance of 168 minutes of silence and the reading of the names of each of the victims. At one end of the memorial is a bronze gate that displays the time, 9:01—one minute before impact. In the center of the memorial is a pool, a field of 149 adult-size chairs and 19 child-size chairs, each engraved with a victim’s name, and the Survivor Tree—an American elm scorched by the blast that revived to bloom again. The memorial is dedicated to the victims, their families, the injured and their families, and to everyone who helped following the blast (i.e., emergency workers, counselors, hospital workers, and those who were affected by the impact in any way). The fence erected to secure the crime scene also serves as a permanent display as hundreds of toys, poems, floral tributes, photographs, letters, and other mementoes were inserted into the wire fence. These items are housed, at the request of the families, in the permanent display in the museum, which is close by the site. At the other end of the memorial is a gate that displays the time, 9:03—one minute after impact (Healey 2001).

Finally, representatives for the families, building owners, government officials, and many others affected by the events of the September 11th terrorist attacks spent 20 months dealing with the challenges of selecting an appropriate permanent memorial to those who died at the World Trade Center. In recognition of socially institutionalized processes at the local and national level, New York City, the Pentagon, and the State of Pennsylvania will erect physical memorials to honor those who died during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was announced in early 2003 that a World Trade Center memorial design has been selected, featuring a 1,776-foot tower with a sunken memorial centerpiece incorporating one of the original walls and a “wedge of light” to capture the sun every September 11th at the time of the original bombings. The memorial will also feature a museum to honor those who died. A design for a permanent Pentagon memorial supported by the victim’s family steering committee was announced in March 2003. Finally, a task force has been established in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to begin the estimated 5 years’ work to establish a permanent memorial there.

Summary and Conclusion

The events and processes discussed in this chapter provide excellent examples of how different communities in different countries have used institutionalized rituals and responses to deal with large-scale grief events. Each of these patterned actions or behaviors is constructed to help community members to socially construct meaning around the event and to find ways to return to their normal patterns of living. Each of the institutionalized processes allows the individual to grieve in a public setting and collectively share their emotions with others. At the same time, the processes are constructed to unite a grieving and confused community into a group that can and will deal with the situation. Finally, each of the processes provides a moral anchor that uses the community’s cultural mores to help structure the bereavement process and the recovery.

It is important to remember that institutionalized responses are structured responses. They call for a leader or leaders to activate the process by officially indicating that there is a social crisis that the community must deal with. Next, there need to be structured social gatherings where individuals can share their emotions and grief. These gatherings not only serve to unify the community, they refocus the participants on the cultural values and mores needed to help resolve the crisis and regain a state of balance. As the series of ritualized events and practices move forward, they lead individuals and the communities through what could be called a ritualized cleansing from the events, moving the crisis to recovery and a return to a state of normalcy, albeit different from the original state before the crisis. As the crisis is formally declared early in the process, it must also formally be brought to closure. But because the culture has been permanently changed by the events, it is important to create remembrances or memorials that will help perpetuate this message to future generations.

This chapter examined the role of ritualized community responses in dealing with large-scale grieving events. These structured processes provide the community and its members with common definitions of what occurred and common ways of grieving and recovering from the tragedies. In essence, these ritual practices provide the community with a sense of communal belonging and sharing of the grief within the socially accepted values and traditions of the community. In each example discussed in the chapter, the institutionalized community responses enabled the respective communities to move through the bereavement process and eventually return to a new socially constructed and shared state of normalcy.