A funeral home in Queens, New York, holds rows of caskets waiting to be shipped for cremation

Bodies in cremation funeral caskets are lined up in rows at a funeral home in Queens, New York, waiting to be shipped upstate for cremation. It is estimated that 80 percent of the deceased were victims of COVID-19.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece is published in partnership with our friends at the Poynter Institute

I was half-way through an essay on how the experience of news — especially in the midst of a pandemic — felt like a kind of ritual. I could not have imagined that on Sunday morning, May 24, a remarkable front page of the New York Times would offer a poignant and exquisite example.

Nothing much on that front page looked like news as we understand it — that is, the transmission of information. Instead, it felt like a graphic representation of the tolling of bells. A litany of the dead.

The page confirmed a theory I was trying to write about, a theory taught to me by the late James W. Carey, one of journalism’s greatest scholars, and a dear friend. Carey argued that a common understanding of news was in the “transmission” of information.

One could say that the Times fulfilled that role in listing the names of 1,000 of the Americans who had died, to date, of the coronavirus. That number, 1,000, was selected at a moment when the country was approaching 100,000 deaths, the kind of number that might elevate news value.

But was the primary purpose of that front page to inform? I believe that Carey would argue no. He would see in the collective experience of those names — each attached to the briefest of obits — a ceremonial purpose, a kind of public ritual of mourning designed to express shared values and move the community to a shared purpose.

Carey argued that these two theories of news — the transmission of information and the consecration of public rituals — were not mutually exclusive. But because the transmission model was so dominant, the ritual model was too often ignored or undervalued.

We will return to the front page of the Times, but let me go back to Sunday morning to tell you what I had been writing about before the perfect example was delivered, virtually, to my doorstep.

Two kinds of “mass” media

On Sunday morning, May 24, my wife and I participated in two familiar rituals. We read the Tampa Bay Times over breakfast. And we attended the 9:30 Mass at St. Paul’s Catholic Church.

That second ritual requires clarification. We did not drive the eight miles from our house to the church. Because of the pandemic, we turned on our computer, found the St. Paul’s Facebook Page, and watched the lived-streamed Mass along with hundreds of others. It was conducted by our two pastors from a small chapel.

Karen and I miss receiving Holy Communion. And we miss the hands-on fellowship of other friends and parishioners, especially the children, especially little Taylor and Cooper, whose antics keep Mass lively during the boring parts.

As humans, we crave ritual and ceremony. We need them to comfort us, reward us, express our shared values, and build a community upon which we can depend. Of all the losses marked by the pandemic, among the greatest are the losses of ceremony. Social distance means that proms, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, concerts, weddings, funerals, public celebrations, athletic events — all have had to wait.

My niece Mary Hope graduated virtually from the University of Notre Dame, where she played the trumpet in the great marching band. Talk about ritual! I saw a photo of her in her New Jersey home, wearing her cap and gown, watching the ceremony from South Bend on a television screen.

Watching your graduation on TV was good, but not the same. Watching a Mass on a computer screen was good, but not the same. And, a more controversial point, reading a virtual newspaper is good, but not the same.

What is it about reading the paper that feels like a ritual, especially to us Baby Boomers who have been doing it for most of our lives? First, the newspaper is a thing, created in our own community, and delivered to our doorstep, or driveway, or lawn, or whatever. If we are lucky, it is there when we wake up. It invites us to pay attention. We pick it up. Bring it inside. Divide it into parts. Distribute the parts to the familiar players. I get sports. She gets local section and puzzles. We are consumers, and we consume it over a meal, shuffling the pages back and forth, calling each other’s attention to whatever looks interesting or important.

Professor Carey argued that reading a newspaper — at least in the days of mass media — was like attending Mass. When you go to Mass, as he did almost every day, you may not learn anything new (except perhaps that raffle tickets are on sale outside the church). For Carey, according to a quote in Wikipedia, “Mass is a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed.”

We Catholics say we “attend” Mass, but some of us prefer to say that we “participate” in the Mass. In the ritual view of media, the reader is not passive. He or she or they participate in the experience of news. Through the transmission of information, they should learn something new, but that new thing confirms rather than alters the reader’s sense of belonging.

When I write that Karen and I miss receiving communion, it suggests that our level of participation in the Mass is diminished from a distance. Catholics grow up to believe that Mass is a re-creation, not an imitation, of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Being there, in the church, when the words of consecration are pronounced, is to be present in real time at the most holy moment in Christian history.

When we think of the experience of news, it rarely includes the idea of ritual. More of habit, perhaps. To use Carey’s distinction, we are more likely to think of the transmission of information. News experts — call them journalists — go out and find things out and check things out and transmit the most important and interesting stuff to our eyes and ears.

In the interests of self-governance, that act seems essential. But that act of transmission is not likely — this is my opinion — to help people love their community. That feeling of love requires something more. It requires ritual.

Incalculable loss

 On Sunday morning, the New York Times gave its readers something special and memorable, a kind of memorial in print, delivered the day before U.S. Memorial Day. The headline read

U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss.

There is great skill in that headline, beginning with the word “Deaths” and ending with “Loss”; with that number 100,000 in the middle, bumping into “Incalculable” — a number that counts but that you cannot count.

A sub-headline followed:

They were not simply names on a list. They were us.

Page One of the New York Times, Sunday May 24, 2020

The New York Times front page, May 24, 2020

When authors know what is most important, they write it into the shortest possible sentence: “They were us.” The use of the first-person plural denotes an identification, not just between the journalist and the reader, but with the dead as well, deepening the ritual of mourning.

What to make of a front page made up of just text? Just type? Who would argue that the primary purpose of that litany of the dead is the transmission of information? Instead, it has a ceremonial value, like the public reading of the names of those who lost their lives on 9/11, or the more than 50,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial.

In their creeds, Catholics profess their faith in a “communion of saints” — all the dead who have risen to new life. Communion is an interesting word. If we leave aside the image of the host on the tongue, we are left with a vision of community and a spirit of union that is embodied — I could say incarnate — in that front page.

“News is culture”

James Carey had a favorite saying, which he repeated to his students and colleagues at the University of Illinois and later at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism: “News is culture.” His friends would repeat it back to him like a secret password. What he meant is that news is a created thing, a symbolic representation of reality. It is transmitted for social purposes. But it is also experienced collectively.

I have attended countless workshops in which news leaders were posed this challenge: “In a few words, tell me what business you are in.” Standard answers include “new business,” “advertising business,” “printing business.” Professor Jay Rosen, who knew Carey and admired him, once argued that local news enterprises could say they were in the “identity business.”

Over the years, depending upon where I lived, I thought of my newspaper as the guidebook — the owner’s manual — for membership in my community. As local news is weakened, as newspapers disappear, as the ritual of reading, viewing, and consuming news is diminished, that feeling of community, that love of community is threatened. To our peril.

Through its ritual of mourning, the Times — now a truly national news organization — has chosen to step into a vacuum of leadership. In addition to informing a fragmented citizenry, the leaders at the Times have chosen to form us into a national community of grief, solidarity, and determination.

The New York Times front page May 24, 2020

One thousand victims of COVID-19 were memorialized on the front page of the New York Times on May 24, 2020

The essay by Dan Barry

If anyone doubts that the Times was purposeful in its act of news ritual, one only needs to read the column by Dan Barry that accompanied the “book of the dead.” I have a list of my favorite New York Times writers of all time, and Barry stands high up on it. His language is eulogistic and ceremonial, including the words “ritual” and “communion.” Here are some of the best passages, followed by my commentary.   

One hundred thousand.

Toward the end of May in the year 2020, the number of people in the United States who have died from the corona virus neared 100,000 — almost all of them within a three-month span. An average of more than 1,100 a day.

One hundred thousand.

A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. A number provides an answer to how many, but can never convey the individual arcs of life, the 100,000 ways of greeting the morning and saying good night.

One hundred thousand.

My take: As a form of rhetoric and prayer, nothing feels more ritualistic than purposeful repetition. Each time we engage with “One hundred thousand,” it feels like the bells ringing out atop a cathedral spire. In journalistic terms, sometimes a number can serve to symbolize the news: 9/11. At this moment in time, it is the death toll, spelled out in words. It never occurred to me, until now, that the “toll” in “death toll” is an allusion to the ringing of bells.

Another passage from Barry’s essay:

She may have died in a jam-packed hospital, with no family member at her bedside to whisper a final thank you, Mom, I love you.

He may have died in a locked down nursing home, his wife peering helplessly through a streaked window as part of her slips away.

They may have died in subdivided city apartments, too sick or too scared to go to a hospital, their closest relatives a half world away.

The highly contagious virus has forced us to suppress our nature as social creatures, for fear that we might infect or be infected. Among the indignities, it has denied us the grace of being present for a loved one’s last moments. Age-old customs that lend meaning to existence have been upended, including the sacred rituals of how we mourn.

My take:  Dan Barry understands the rhetorical power of three, visible here in the texture and structure of the column. Three is the largest number in writing. Three examples mean “this is all you need to know right now.” We find three in the liturgies and scriptures of many religions, from the theology of the Trinity, to the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Here Barry skillfully avoids names, an unusual move in journalism. The anonymity creates a sense of the many rather than of one. And nowhere is the intention of coverage made clearer than in this passage, that the Times is attempting to compensate for the loss of “Age-old customs that lend meaning to existence…including the sacred rituals of how we mourn.”

Before, we came together in halls and bars and places of worship to remember and honor the dead. We recited prayers or raised glasses or retold familiar stories so funny they left us nodding and crying through our laughter.

In these vital moments of communion, it could feel as though the departed were with us one last time, briefly resurrected by the sheer power of our collective love, to share that closing prayer, that parting glass, that final hug.

Even in horrible times of wars and hurricanes and terrorist attacks that seemed to crumble the ground beneath our feet, we at least had the time-tested ways of grieving that helped us take that first hesitant step forward.

Not now.

My take:  Just look at the language and the connotations that vibrate through this passage: places of worship, honor the dead, recited prayers, moments of communion, briefly resurrected, our collective love. When a writer — with a team behind him — knows what he wants to say, that meaning should be reflected in the “diction” of the work, that is, the choice of every word.

And then this:

…In a larger sense, the suspension of our familiar rituals of burial or cremation reflected what life in a pandemic has been like. The absence of any clear end.

Even the dead have to wait.

My take: If I had to choose a single sentence that reflects the collective suffering brought upon the human race in this global pandemic, if might be “Even the dead have to wait.”  Six words.

And finally:

One hundred thousand.

A threshold number. It is the number celebrated when the family’s car odometer ticks once more to reach six digits. It is the number of residents that can make a place feel fully like a city: San Angelo, Texas; Kenosha, Wisconsin; Vacaville, California.

So imagine a city of 100,000 residents that was here for New Year’s Day but has now been wiped from the American map.

One hundred thousand.

Always first on the dance floor. Always ready to party. Always gave back.

Preferred bolo ties and suspenders.

Awarded the Bronze Star.  Served in the Women’s Army Corps. Survived the sinking of the Andrea Doria. Competed in the Special Olympics. Immigrated to achieve the American dream.

Could quote Tennyson from memory.

A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition.

One. Hundred. Thousand.

My take:  If you ring the bell at the beginning, ring it again at the end. But this time more slowly, with a period — a full stop — after each word. The repetition of “one hundred thousand” links the parts together. In service to the litany of the dead, Barry completes a complicated narrative move. Let’s call one the “flyover” in which the reader is asked to identify with a kind of cartography of death, a map of American loss. But then, again without names, the writer makes us pay attention to the individuality or particularity of loss, made manifest in a defining human action: He “Could quote Tennyson from memory.”

One last note from the bell

What, in short do I derive from my personal participation in this journalistic ritual of mourning? Yes, even the dead have to wait, but we don’t. We can do something good. Each one of us. All of us. Before the number hits 200,000.

Roy Peter Clark is a writing coach and scholar who taught writing at the Poynter Institute since 1977.  He is the author or editor of 19 books on journalism and the writing craft including “Writing Tools” and his most recent “Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.”

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