In the wake of a celebrity death, several things happen; flower shrines are built, preposterous rumours are started, special edition newspapers/magazines are published, depending on the size of the celebrity and paparazzi set up camp outside the hospital/funeral home. This protocol is the same for most high profile deaths with the general rule of thumb being the bigger the name, the larger the public shrine. One must, of course, keep in mind the possibility of a boost in celebrity brought on by death and thus an unprecedented floral shrine. Much depends on the public’s mood.
Something else happens, and it happens without fail every time. The deceased celebrity begins a steep ascent into the upper echelons of hyperbolic praise and sycophantic tributes. They become, momentarily, deities, enshrined in the temples of feel-good editorials, gushing columns, biographical montages, In Memory of … People Magazine covers. And, amidst the tributes and glossy retrospectives, inevitably emerge commentators who are tugging at the ropes of the hot air balloon containing the smiling image of the celeb; the hot air balloon threatening to sail away into the history books as an icon, an exemplary human, a God. It is the aim of these commentators to play the devil’s advocate. To remind the people calling the radio in tears, and watching hastily produced Bio channel documentaries, that we must never forget, above all, these people were merely human. Often flawed humans at that, because to err is to be human and an Oscar, a series of platinum records or a reality television program, doesn’t change that. And their death does not change their mortality, nor wipe clean their worldly slate. And it certainly shouldn’t change the way we saw them in life.
Celebrity deaths also follow schedules. There’s the initial shock (best heard on radio, when people call up and talk out their feelings with the DJ); then it’s the media tsunami, which lasts a couple of days until the shock wears off; then the speculation begins in earnest (the more sordid the better, no one likes a natural passing) and simultaneously, the cynics emerge and start pointing and whispering at the pink elephant – otherwise known as the deceased’s rap sheet (alcoholism, domestic abuse, child molestation charges, drugs, anger management problems). Whilst all this is happening, merchandise, CDs, DVDs etcetera, etcetera flies off the shelves (as a friend of mine said, ‘if you wanted to own Thriller, why didn’t you buy it before he died?’)
Then there’s the public funeral, the media coverage of that, and although the celebrity may be in their final resting place, there is nothing restful about the water cooler conversation role they now occupy. They are still terrific fodder for thought, discussion and debate. And that seems to have its roots in the fact that how we saw them in life was nothing like how we see them now, in death. Or, at the very least, the latter is a high-gloss, far more heroic version of the former.
When Steve Irwin was killed by a sting-ray in 2006, Australia, his home country, performed a phenomenal about face. Within hours, Steve was a hero. A national symbol. The furor was phenomenal. Everyone sort of forgot that, for the most part, he enjoyed most of his career success in America (which is largely where they got the idea we all say crikey) and was part of Australia’s ongoing issue with that pesky cultural cringe. We absolutely never embraced the Crocodile Hunter like the yanks – it’s just not something we’d do. But didn’t we embrace him when he met his untimely end – and then some. The national outpouring of grief was, many said at the time, like Australia’s version of Princess Diana. We’d never seen anything quite like it.
Now, Steve was something of a hero. The work that man did for the environment was remarkable. But, it has to be said, in life Steve was a third of the celebrity he became in death. Most of us didn’t know the extent of his environmental work, the depth of his zeal for mother earth, until he died. And the question remains, would we have cared as much had he lived to the ripe old age of eighty, and shuffled off the mortal coil sans filmed sting-ray barb? Most probably not.
So why do we do it? What is it about a celebrity dying that gets us all a-flutter?
Unavoidably, there’s the m word. The media loves a good death; it means effortless headlines, column inches and ratings. Which means money. So it’s in their best interests to flog the horse – and oh my God I am only just refraining from a pun – and it is unavoidable we get caught up in the calamity.
But, media aside, the chord a celebrity death strikes in us, the public, is undeniable. I shed many tears when news broke of Heath Ledger’s death, openly cried watching Steve Irwin’s public funeral and found myself weeping when Michael Jackson’s death was finally confirmed the other morning. Now, clearly, I don’t know these people. I wasn’t even particularly invested in them as celebrities, or public figures. It was just a sort of embarrassing, sniveling display on my part and thank God I was alone on all these occasions.
It is possible our tendency to toss a tea towel over the pink elephant, or shred the rap sheet if you will, ties in with our discomfort with speaking ill of the dead. Within our culture, death is a disconnected occurrence from daily life. We just politely walk around it, deal with it when we have to, and give it a wide berth the rest of the time. We also all seem to have something of a superstitious bone, as if saying ‘but didn’t he beat his wife,’ or ‘didn’t she sell her baby for drugs?’ will make the reaper himself pop out from behind a shrub and grab us with his hook and ferry us away.
When I posed the ‘why do we deify celebrities’ question on Twitter, a friend of mine asked, ‘don’t we all worship at the altar of celebrity? And what better way to do it than to canonize the dead?’ This is true. Our deeply rooted obsession with celebrity certainly carries into their final moments – we love the intrigue, mystery and tragedy of celebrity death. Two words – Marilyn Monroe. Plus, the whole nature of celebrity essentially lends one immortality. These people can’t die, they’re right there on the cover of that magazine. And I just saw him on TV, he can’t be dead. Surrounding ourselves with their images, their voices, weaving their lives and trivia into our daily conversations, it is impossible to conceive of these people going anywhere. Celebrities are people we all know, who exist beyond an ordinary life – they elude most of life’s certainties (taxes, cellulite, budgets) and so it shocks us when they cannot elude the greatest certainty of them all – death.
And finally I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that, when someone famous dies, it’s okay to be publicly emotional. It’s a unifying event. You talk to people you’d never ordinarily talk to, commiserate with strangers. Sharing your grief with the world is acceptable. Death, is actually an incredibly intimate experience to share with other people; it is familiar to all of us, on a fundamental level. No one is exempt from it. It truly is the great leveler. It is also inescapably intriguing. And so, could it be, that the death of someone we all, technically, ‘know’ is an event that brings us all closer together in an increasingly individualistic society, if only momentarily.
Whatever the reason, the treatment of celebrities in death has always been, and will always be, at times bizarre, at times contradictory and often outright hypocritical; but more than anything, the death of a celebrity will inevitably be larger than life.
Some food for thought …
Michael Jackson shrine image by Tleonard1 on Flickr
Steve Irwin poster by rick on Flickr
Heath Ledger image by Howie Berlin on Flickr
Image of women watching Jade Goody’s funeral procession by Steve Punter on Flickr