Dutch military personnel carry a coffin containing an unidentified body from the MH17 crash

Everyone who’s been to a few funerals eventually develops a certain fear, and that is of saying exactly the wrong thing. It’s a product of the paradoxical nature of the event — a death at the centre, and around it, ceremonies, lamentation, condolences, the urge to say meaningful things. Bathos and absurdity become inevitable, and in the continuing obsequies around MH17, Governor-General Peter Cosgrove might just have hit that mark. Speaking in Eindhoven, as the first 40 or so bodies arrived from the crash site, he said “today they were all Australians”.

One can understand the desire to show some solidarity and communality, but this is a ridiculous sentiment, is it not? Surely the dead belong to those from among whom they came? That’s the whole point of the connection between the living and the dead. When a loved one dies, we initially find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe. How can they have ceased to exist, when their image — their face, the sound of their voice — is still in our hearts, in our heads? National mourning takes on that form of familial mourning. To mourn fellow nationals is to mourn people who might have been somewhat like us in some ways — liked the beach, ate Tim Tams, shed a tear on Anzac Day.

So to claim someone else’s dead is very odd, and, minor of itself, a measure of the strange way that public death is being transformed in a culture itself being transformed by the media, and by an increasing hunger for occasions of solidarity. Over past decades, the treatment of public tragedies has changed from being a random group event — a planeload of passengers dying in a crash — to a personalised and individualised one, in which the stories are told in endless recirculation. The process is contradictory at its heart, since the photos and the stories, the memories of the living and the tributes, all trail back to that one extinguishing event, which is indifferent to all that has gone before. Trying to capture life’s elusive meaning — to mimic personal and intimate mourning in a public arena — the effect is to remind us of the underlying futility of existence, rather than its fullness.

The fascination, one suspects, has multiple causes. The fading of a widespread belief in the afterlife and the horror at extinction keeps us returning to that most repressed of all thoughts — hence the quite bizarre and extended discussions of whether the passengers of MH17 would have died instantly, and the suspiciously comforting answer that yes, they would have. But it is also in part because of the retreat of accidental and premature death in everyday life in the advanced West.

It is quite astonishing the degree to which such death has retreated in the last four or five decades. Road tolls, which used to be regular Saturday night carnage,  are a quarter or less of what they were. Air crashes have become far less common. Sudden heart attacks have been limited by better routine testing, etc. The Heimlich manoeuvre, the simple (and now apparently superseded) way of preventing choking, is estimated to have prevented several hundred thousand excess deaths since it was introduced in the 1970s.

Thus, one might say that the period from the 1960s to the ’90s was a transitional period — antibiotics and vaccines had beaten back the routine presence of sudden death in life, but people still knew enough people who had “gone through a windscreen” or “just keeled over” for some acceptance of its residual risk to be internalised. Now that such deaths are not only rarer but often the product of negligence, the meaning has changed. The Woody Allen joke — “death just seems an incredibly hostile act by the universe” — has become our default setting.

Parallel to that development, and entwined with it, have been changes in the media and culture. The collapse of an overarching historical narrative — that of capitalism v communism — has left us with a world in which there is no big other to define our meaning against. Increasingly, lethal forces are obsessed fundamentalisms or nationalisms, which have the look of unquestionable truth from the inside and of delusion from the outside. The fading of such a big and simple battle was defined by the Cold War, and it has left many people relatively less interested in the old idea of what news is, what it was purveying. The absence of such a news interest is made particularly visible when it flares up again — as in the aftermath of 9/11. As a certain idea of news becomes of less interest, spectacle takes over and newsrooms shrink — and what greater spectacle and easily repackaged story is there than mass death? Had 40 or so Australians been lost in an air crash 30 or 40 years ago, the coverage would have been nothing like the coverage that MH17 is getting. By now it would have been relegated to a series of follow-up stories. That doesn’t mean that the more extensive coverage we have now is the aberration, and the old style the “normal”, but it does represent a major cultural shift. Perhaps there was too little of it a few decades ago. But now there is definitely too little analysis, critical investigation, or simple bullshit detection going on.

With dominant narratives unquestioned, and desperately sad personal testimonies being substituted — the parents who lost three children writing to the Russian separatists saying they are living a “hell beyond hell”, of which people in the Ukraine region are not without experience — this thanatomania can be put to use. To remonstrate with people conducting a civil war for killing people is obviously pointless, but it is also expressive of an assumption about who should and shouldn’t expect sudden death. Having exiled sudden death from our lives, it becomes easy to see as something that other people should expect — people who don’t live our plush, high-expectation lives. The plaudits the government is getting is based on this expectation. Kill Ukrainian civilians, Gazans, Iraqi Shia if you like, but how dare you kill us? In the process, reportage has become an all-but-unanimous descant about how strong the government is being and how proud we are of them on the world stage. This seems to be just about the worst traducing of the deceased yet. Julie Bishop has acquired a new, tougher image, so they did not die in vain. Driven by the media Right’s need to reconstruct the Abbott government’s image after a shambolic year, it has become an extremely questionable, and utterly distasteful, line of argument.

But there is no sign it will end anytime soon. Nor that the real story — the ramshackle system for assessing flight path risk, and the commercial motive for using risky flight paths — will get a full and dispassionate discussion. Death has no interiority. It is the ultimate McGuffin, the signifier without a signified, flying through the news storm, trailing meaning in its wake.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey