It was Rudyard Kipling who said that east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. Kipling was referring to India which was then the jewel in the British empire and Kipling, like other colonial apologists, maintained that the cultural bridge between Indians and the British could never be bridged.

This came to mind a few days ago when Kim Jong Il, the president of North Korea, died and there was a sense of shock and surprise in the US media over the public expressions of grief. There was much speculation that the grief was, at least in part, contrived and although that cannot be ruled out much of the speculation was likely because of how differently people mourn in the West versus the East. The scene below with the public grieving certainly seems over the top and one wonders to what extent it is a function of the fact Kim Jong Il was really viewed like a demi-god in his country as was his father.

This next video clip is also quite striking because it appears to be officials in North Korea making an open display of their grief on hearing the news of Kim’s death:

When I lived in Kenya I attended only one funeral – it was of a Pakistani veterinarian who had been killed after he was struck by lightning. I was about 11 years old at the time and I was struck by the wailing and crying and the beating of one’s chest by the mourners. The body in a coffin had been brought to the residence and was there on open display in the relatively small room surrounded by female mourners who were seated on the floor crying and wailing. It left an indelible impression on me – and I still have vivid recollections of the scene. A few years later when I was visiting India from England, my uncle died quite suddenly and his body was at his residence and, again, the displays of grief and mourning were public and uninhibited.

In the mid-nineties my daughters attended the funeral of their maternal grandmother in India and I recall my older daughter telling me that she was shocked and taken aback by the open and vocal displays of grief that she witnessed at the funeral. Both my daughters were brought up in the West and it was their first exposure to a funeral in India.

The first funeral I attended in the West was in the US in 1975 when some one who worked for me lost his father in an industrial accident. The wake was at a funeral home and it was a “closed casket” funeral apparently because the injuries were severe. The scene was very different from the funerals in India and Kenya. The family sat in the front row seats and the mourners would pay their respects at the coffin and then offer their condolences to the family members who were clearly despondent and visibly grieved but in a very controlled way.

I recall reading years ago that Aristotle Onassis, when his marriage to Jackie Kennedy was breaking down, told her accusingly that she did not have any feelings for JFK because at his funeral, she maintained her composure and did not display any open grief. My assumption is that in Greece – which is where Onassis was from – the mourning involves more open displays of grief than is perhaps the case in the US or the UK. So the lack of public grief is interpreted as lack of caring. Contrast this with the reaction in the US where Jackie’s self control right through the assassination and funeral was widely hailed as being extraordinary and to be admired especially considering her relatively young age at the time JFK died.

At Princess Diana’s funeral we saw a bit of an anomaly. On the one hand the British public – men and women – displayed their grief in the most open fashion. There was none of the famed British “stiff upper lip” evident. But it was very different when it came to the Royal family – even Diana’s sons, William and Harry, who were quite young at the time displayed extraordinary self-control and composure as they followed her coffin on foot and then later through the funeral service.

I cannot blame the Western media for being totally unable to relate to the scenes of grief at Kim Jong Il’s death – it is very much a cultural difference. The assumption that the grief was contrived is most likely because of this cultural gap and also because of the Western perception that since North Korea is an autocratic state the populace would be pressured into certain modes of conduct even at a funeral. My own inclination is to take the grief at face value and view it as a combination of mourning customs in the east as well as Kim’s own status as a leader of his country and the cult of personality associated with him.

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