Why we need mourning bands

I first ran across a mourning band back in my teens, when watching a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery on PBS (I was a very strange teenager).  The band in question was worn by Detective Charles Parker, Wimsey’s sidekick, brother-in-law, and confidant.  I don’t recall which mystery it was, or for whom Parker was in mourning, but I was very struck by the idea of the band itself.  It was a simple piece of black cloth, neatly worn around Parker’s well-muscled arm.  The effect it had on the other characters was amazing:  open hostility would spontaneously morph into quiet deference, as the band silently, but clearly, announced that this was a man who has sustained a loss.  Be gentle with him.

What a quaint custom, I thought.  I wonder why we don’t wear them now

And I never thought about them again, until last week.

If you happened to have been in my local Home Goods store last week, you might have been startled by the bewildering sight of an otherwise sane-looking middle-aged woman crying silently, but openly, while holding a turquoise colored ice bucket to her chest.  That would have been me.

Certainly, there were several people out there who did see me—I could tell that they had noticed me by how wide a berth they gave me (and believe me, given the crowded conditions of your typical Home Goods store, it involved some pretty tricky maneuvering to give me even a narrow berth).  I certainly don’t begrudge them their wariness.  Indeed, if the roles had been reversed, I would doubtlessly have sent my cart careening down the aisles in my rush to avoid contact with such a sight.  After all, in these perilous times, who knows what insane thoughts and dark desires could have triggered those tears?

As it happens, I do know what had caused my tears upon beholding the ice bucket:  it was the recent death of my eldest sister. My sister, you see, had pancreatic cancer, which, after a string of disastrous misadventures too gloomy to enumerate, resulted in her being able to ingest only liquids and ice chips. She especially liked chewing the ice, because it allowed her to pretend to be eating something.  Consequently, we had to make sure that she had a steady supply of ice. Now, my sister could hardly be unique in this regard: after all, a hospice is generally chockerblock with the dying, and surely a fair proportion of them would be unable to eat anything but ice chips.  So you would think they would supply you with a halfway decent ice bucket, wouldn’t you? However, the hospice had only those flimsy Styrofoam ice buckets/pitchers, the kind that seem to specialize in turning ice chips into ice slush.

So, when I saw that sassy little ice bucket, with its efficient insulation and darling little rope handles, I immediately thought of my sister, whose favorite color, as it happens, was turquoise.  Cue water works, because her death is so recent, and my heart so raw, that any reminder of her is likely to get me going.

Having put the string of events into words, it is quite apparent that the connection between the ice bucket and her death is so tenuous that it is hard to say with a straight face that there is a connection at all.  Indeed, to a rational mind, the existence of a turquoise ice bucket would hardly rise to the stature of a mere coincidence.  But that’s grief for you:  crazy, fitful, and prone to mischief.  That’s precisely why a mourning band would be so handy:  it would tell the world, “Watch out!  Grieving sister ahead!  Be careful:  she might do something in-saaaane!”  And the world, in turn, would gently nod its head and allow me to cry in the middle of the party section of my sister’s favorite store without feeling too embarrassed about it.

Mourning bands were first introduced to the male mourner’s wardrobe in the 1770’s, but they really hit their heyday in the Victorian era.  When Prince Albert died, Queen Victoria ordered her male servants to wear their mourning bands for eight years! Now you generally see them on police badges when an officer dies in the line of duty, but even then, they are so small (they’re generally worn on the badge) and on for so short a time (usually from the date of death to the funeral), that they are hardly noticeable at all.[1]  Given how prevalent death was in the Victorian era, with little kids, pregnant women, and consumptive factory workers kicking the bucket all around you, you would think that people would try to escape it.  But no!  Instead of avoiding death, Victorians positively wallowed in complex and restrictive funerary practices. But that is the paradox identified eons ago by Elisabeth Kübler Ross in On Death and Dying:  when death was prevalent, we incorporated dying into our daily life.  Now, when death is conveniently boxed away in a hospital, we keep it at arm’s length.  Or else, in the event of spectacular deaths like the victims of mass shootings or marathon bombers, death becomes a media event, something that happens to other people, and thus remains beyond our personal experience. But that’s crazy, really—we’re all going to die.  We are all born, and we all die.  That’s life.  Get used to it.  Yet we rarely do get used to it, and we rarely treat death as the inevitability that it is.

In this, as in so many other things, my sister was an exception.  She had been a nurse, and therefore had both the experience and the analytical mind necessary to meet death head-on, in a totally matter-of-fact manner.  Thus it was that I actually read out loud the obituary I had written for her in order to obtain her editorial approval—the fourth most surreal incident of my life. I suspect that if my sister had seen a sobbing woman in the middle of Home Goods, she would have guessed that the woman had lost someone dear to her.  I don’t know exactly what it is she would have done, but it would have been done with the knowledge that here was a person who needed special consideration.

Most people do not have my sister’s preternatural powers of observation, which is why a mourning band would be handy.   Even though it started out as a mourning accessory for men, there is no reason why it couldn’t be used universally.  It would give the mourner space to grieve, to cry for no apparent reason, and it would also allow the on-looker to back away discreetly.  Or even to pat a stranger’s shoulder, in recognition that we are all at death’s mercy.

[1]Different cultures do still have mourning practices.  For example, Jewish men don’t shave their beard for thirty days after the death of a loved one.  But, frankly, that wouldn’t do too much for me, as I don’t generally shave my beard anyway.  No one would notice.  Also, the mourning band has the advantage of being universal:  anyone can use it, even a grieving atheist such as myself.  It is merely a simple banner stating that the wearer is grieving, with no religious or gender-specific overtones (or undertones, for that matter).

Copyright 2017 D.R. Miller


4 Responses to “Why we need mourning bands”

  1. Kollenberg Says:

    Dearest Deborah – we could try to make the wearing of turquoise ice buckets a thing for grieving family members. The problem remains, how to wear said bucket. As a hat? As a shoe? Discuss.

    • Well,it would be versatile. On days when I can’t cope with anything, I could wear it over my head. On the days I’m a bit short of cash, I could carry it upside up, all the better for collecting alms. On days when I want to just sit and watch the world go by, I could use it as a stool. All in all, not a bad idea!

  2. Candida Steel Says:

    Of course, my dear, your sister brought you to the ice bucket!

  3. […] basis.  For the most part, with the exception of “The Noblest Roman” (about John McCain) and “Why We Need Mourning Bands” (about the death of my sister), I’ve heaped scorn and sarcasm galore on Trump’s metaphorical […]

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