Not before time, the public enquiry into the tragic events at Grenfell Tower has juddered into motion. Already we’ve heard several days of heartrending and tragic testimony from those who’ve lost loved ones in the most dreadful, almost unimaginable circumstances. These Commemoration hearings will perhaps bring some small crumb of comfort to those left behind to live with the crippling pain, anguish and guilt that always accompanies such a sudden and traumatic event.
But since when did a public enquiry become a fitting vehicle for these once very private and deeply personal parts of the grieving process?
Will these eulogies to the departed teach us anything about how this tragedy unfolded, or forewarn us against similar dangers in the future? Will they shed any light on decisions made long ago that formed the next link in this chain of catastrophe? I’d like to think so, but a tear-jerking tale of personal loss cannot advance our understanding of the events leading up to that terrible and unforgettable night.
This blurring of lines between the judicial and the personal is an unhealthy one, both for the victims of tragedy and for society at large. While friends, family and community might offer essential support to those directly affected by disaster, the public enquiry is designed to heal and salve the wider society. Its primary role is to establish exactly which variables contributed to the tragedy, and to honour the suffering of the departed by ensuring that we learn something valuable from their deeply unjust and untimely demise. We all feel a sense of loss and bewilderment after such a monumental event, and so we look to the instruments of state to provide answers and reassurance that never again will we tread that same path toward disaster.
It feels deeply ironic that our media driven and secular society is becoming ever more obsessed with personal grief, as we turn away from the eternal and spiritual to place our trust in the inconstant and temporal. Funerals, memorials and services can no longer satisfy our collective search for closure and meaning. These ancient rites of passage and grief are now recycled into documentaries and retrospectives, while yet more tributes to the lost are being shoehorned into a judicial process designed primarily to establish the facts.
As these personal tragedies are played out day by day on the public stage, I’m forced to wonder who benefits most from this protracted display of emotional outpouring. Time will tell, but I’m not convinced that these overly worthy displays of grief and loss will move us any closer to the answers we seek. Still, it makes a cracking good real-life melodrama that we can all involve ourselves in, whether we were there or not.
Who are we really thinking of when we turn on the TV to catch the next episode?
Images courtesy of Hazel Brown & Johanna Ljungblom at FreeImages.com