Oh, come not near then to your Jenny,Feast During the Plague, Lines 60-64
No last kiss on her pale lips lay,
Watch, but watch you from afar off
When they bear her corpse away
What does it mean to grieve in a pandemic?
All over the world, burial rituals have changed, and people are experiencing grief not only for the loss of their loved ones, but also for the loss of customs they were meant to remember them by. Families in Wuhan have not been able to pick up the cremated ashes of their loved ones for two months because of lockdown. Filipino wakes normally last up to three days, but the pandemic has enforced all cremations to take place within 12 hours of death. Big public funeral processions that were once so vital in many faiths of South Asia are now complicated by social distancing. When the best one can do is Zoom into a friend’s funeral, a great deal of human connection is lost.
I find Pushkin’s exploration of coping mechanisms and grief particularly relevant to this modern concern. Edgar Allan Poe wrote a similarly story to Pushkin’s called “The Masque of the Red Death” where a group of rich people also throw themselves a feast in the middle of plague, but while Poe’s play was about confronting mortality head on, Pushkin is more concerned with those who have to consider it second-hand.
Pushkin through the Chairman and other characters, considers the emotionally turbulent experience of restricting our reactions to loss. Though Mary seems distraught over the empty churches and schoolyards and burials and conveys her sadness through song, her companions are perhaps equally distraught but a little better at hiding it. “So for the Plague a hearty cheer!” says the Chairman. Though his mother is dead and so is his wife and dear friend, a cheer, he says. His grief is expressed in the active denial of hurt and sadness. He turns to alcohol and merriment as a cheap way of coping with tragedy. It makes one wonder how much of this reaction was imposed on by the plague? Would he have reacted similarly if his mother had died in more normal circumstances? If he had been allowed to see her and mourn? Or did the plague amplify his grief?
Interestingly enough, it is not those who have been those most heavily hit by loss of loved ones that are out there partying today. The only parties I ever hear of are these so-called COVID parties. While Pushkin’s feast was about grief and respect for the tragedy of plague, the modern COVID party (if it does exists) is centered on the active denial of plague. It makes me wonder, maybe plague-denial is in itself is an expression of grief. Or maybe not. Who knows.