Misplaced Mourning

The death notices in The Daily Telegraph make it plain. Most everyone here dies peaceably, in the hospital or after a brief illness. There are, of course, the sad exceptions. One unfortunate local died ''tragically whilst walking in the Dolomites.'' One ''went to sleep in her garden.'' Another is said to have bravely kept her sense of humor. But it's all the same. The facts of death in late-century England are like the facts of death on the rest of the planet: it happens.

Reading the paper while on a book tour here, what strikes me as particularly British is how these classified death notices not only tell the reader when and how a person died, but also what one may or may not do about it. Of the 60 deaths announced on this particular day, 35 instruct ''no flowers'' or ''family flowers only.'' One family will allow ''garden or wild flowers only.''

Still another family requests no funeral, no flowers and ''no letters please,'' in anticipation of that vexing custom among the upper crust to send hand-written, heart-rending notes when someone dies. This family has spent a little more than 15 pounds per line to announce that the only appropriate response to this fellow's death is a donation to ''St. Paul's,'' whatever that might be.

Indeed, these notices, while tough on florists, are much tougher on those who want to mark someone's death. They provide a specific litany of the accounts into which one's respects might most properly be paid: cancer research, asthma and Alzheimer's, the Injured Jockeys Fund, hospitals and hospices and heart foundations.

I wonder if all that money saved by not sending flowers is really spent on cancer cures or church repairs. I wonder how many just go out and spend their cash on pints of lager or a couple of gins, consoling themselves with the thought that ''the old boy wouldn't want us to be morbid, after all!''

And sometimes I wonder how it would look if someone specified ''just send roses'' or ''bring tuna casseroles only'' or ''in lieu of donations, just drink Merlot in memory of our beloved so and so.'' Would we then notice that it is bad form to tell people how to grieve or express empathy?

Of course, these notices, and the families placing them, are only trying to be helpful. And if they err on the side of privacy and the stiff upper lip, well, what could be more British? These families and a generation of Americans have learned from the late Jessica Mitford, the daughter of British aristocrats and author of the recently republished ''The American Way of Death,'' that the math of coffins and the money of flowers are easier subjects to discuss than the meaning of death or the dynamics of grief.

Ms. Mitford favored cost efficiency, good causes and geographical cures. ''The day after the baby was buried,'' she writes of her infant daughter's death from measles, ''we left for Corsica. There we lived for three months in the welcome unreality of a foreign town, shielded by distance from the sympathy of friends.''

This formidable restraint stands in remarkable contrast to the funeral held here in London a year ago for Diana, Princess of Wales. It was quite probably the most public event in history, broadcast around the globe in living color and boldfaced type. There was open grief, some genuine, some suspect. There was perhaps some guilt, some shame; maybe, in some quarters, even some relief.

There was a weeklong planetary wake during which responses ranged from foolish to honorable, brave to heartbreaking, maddening to memorable. There were acres of flowers, the singing of sad songs, quickly drafted elegies in the daily papers. There was a body in a coffin that was moved through town and taken into church before it was borne home for burial.

Real sons, real siblings and unwelcome realities appeared in brutal abundance. Like all things that happen in real time, these obsequies left room for the ridiculous and the sublime, and most things in between. But in the end, it worked. It was a ''good'' funeral. It served the living by caring for the dead.

Of course, now the locals have begun to wonder if maybe it wasn't all a little over the top. There's some worry among church leaders over the Cult of Diana, a secular saint replacing more traditional Christian icons. There are also rumors that Diana isn't buried at Althorp at all, and the inevitable conspiracy theories.

There are new university courses in Dianaology, uncountable new Web sites in her name, fights involving the memorial fund. There's even a new Princess Diana Memorial Rose, created with the full approval of Diana's estate. According to the florist marketing the flower, ''its ivory petals are tinted with a clear pink blush, and the large, elegantly shaped buds open into graceful, full flowers with impeccable form and a sweet fragrance.'' (And 15 percent of the revenue from the retail price goes toward the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.)

There's gold in the Diana Memorial Hills, and everyone seems intent on mining some. Is the impulse to maximize our responses to the deaths of icons a compensation for our tendency to minimize our responses to the deaths that really matter -- our own people, family and friends?

Might some of the flowers dumped at Buckingham Palace last year have been better sent in sympathy for or memory of real neighbors and friends? Did some of those tears shed last summer belong to the parents or spouses or children whose deaths were never grieved enough long years before? Do we compensate for local understatement by global hyperbole?

Perhaps if we were more willing to leave ourselves open to grief -- deregulated, unplanned, unruly, potentially embarrassing -- we'd have less free-floating, unattached heartache to spend on the packaged bereavement opportunities the media serves up.

Maybe if we were better at wakes and funerals, those ancient parlor games by which we once buried or burned our own dead more publicly and mourned our local losses openly, we could let our princesses rest in peace.

August 31, 1998
The New York Times