After Anna

Even the traditionally inhibited Scandinavians have adopted Diana-style mourning rituals.

Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics

‘What I find difficult to understand is why people are weeping over a woman they never really knew – not personally, anyway.’ So said a Swedish acquaintance of mine, as reports of Sweden’s public mourning for murdered foreign minister Anna Lindh made headlines around the world.

Of course Sweden is stunned and shocked by the brutal killing in broad daylight of someone who was often referred to as their ‘future prime minister’. Of course people feel sympathy for the loved ones she left behind, especially her two young sons.

But the unreserved outpouring of public grief is something new to the otherwise reserved Swedes. Scandinavians are not known for showing their emotions in public (unless drunk – when they seem to let-it-all-hang-out). We are generally known for being rather cold and inhibited and not particularly expressive.

Yet after Lindh’s murder, people have been openly weeping and hugging each other (another thing that Scandinavians are not generally comfortable with) at candlelit vigils around Sweden.

Shortly after the news broke, members of the public started laying single red roses outside the department store where Lindh was attacked. Within a few days this had grown to a shrine-like mound of flowers, handwritten notes, children’s drawings and momentos, which stood over a metre high. Days after the attack, many were still queuing to sign books of condolences.

This response is very different to the way in which Swedes reacted to the assassination of their prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. Palme was shot twice in the stomach as he left a cinema with his wife. Many in Sweden were stunned and upset, and concerned about what the killing would mean for their ‘open society’. But there was no national outpouring of public grief, and no candlelit vigils.

But if the post-Lindh public expression of grief is alien to us Scandinavians, it is all too familiar to anybody who has lived in the UK for the past few years. Particularly since Diana Princess of Wales died in a car crash in 1997, new rituals of public mourning have developed.

After Diana’s death condolence books were placed in Buckingham Palace, with thousands queuing for hours to sign the books. Bouquets of flowers and mementos – including teddy bears and children’s drawings – were placed in make-shift shrines. The cameras were there to record people’s weeping, as many proclaimed that the woman they had never met meant so much to them.

This Diana-style response has now made its way across the North sea to even the inhibited Scandinavians – who seem to have followed the mourning ritual to the tee. Just as a weeping crowd listened to Elton John singing a tribute to Diana, Swedes gathered in Sergels Torg, one of Stockholm’s largest squares, to hear the popular female singer Eva Dahlgren singing her tribute to Lindh. One cannot help but wonder how orchestrated the whole mourning process actually is.

Inevitably, now memories of 9/11 are also evoked: as one mourner put it: ‘[Lindh’s] death is our 11 September.’ (1)

But as with the death of Diana, it is clear that the public response cannot really be about people’s feelings for Lindh herself. Instead, the public response is shaped more by pre-existing feelings of atomisation. At a time when people feel isolated, with few common experiences to unite them, these expressions of grief can give them a sense of belonging, however momentary. So through these collective displays of emotion – showing the world how upset you are and connecting with others who feel the same way – an otherwise fragmented society is able to achieve a sense of collectivity.

This can only ever be a temporary phenomenon – the grief is necessarily transient because, in a sense, it is not real. People may feel genuinely upset, but it is not authentic grief. Grief is the emotional expression of a profound sense of personal loss. So just as soon as today’s public mourning springs up, it starts breaking up and disappears.

Many commentators speculated whether the killing of Lindh – the most visible embodiment of the ‘yes’ to the Euro campaign – would influence the Euro referendum. The ‘no’ side had been enjoying a solid lead in all the opinion polls before the attack.

However, the Diana-style-reaction to Lindh’s death has much more in common with the anti-Euro vote than with the ‘yes’ vote. The ‘yes’ side did have the entire Swedish establishment on side: it was supported by the government, opposition, big business and the media. Rather than strengthening the ‘yes’ campaign, the fact that the establishment was united in arguing for the Euro instead bred distrust of the campaign. The ‘no’ side was shaped by a disillusionment with traditional politics – a reaction against anything the establishment may be trying to foist upon Swedes.

Similarly, behind public mourning rituals lies a strong sense of vulnerability and doubt. The politics of emotion goes hand-in-hand with political disenchantment. Alongside the suspicion of authority lies a sense of powerlessness. Equally, people identify with the cult of victimhood because they feel vulnerable and it gives them at least some sense of having a shared experience.

This cynicism and disengagement from all things political is more of a threat to democracy than any madman in a department store. Democracy is not about whether or not politicians have bodyguards nor about whether they go shopping or skiing with ‘the people’. Democracy relies on a public engagement with the political process and political debate. The reaction to Lindh’s death symbolises the demise of democracy.

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Topics Politics

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