You’re never more more famous than when you die.
Being born is nothing special. Unless you’re Jesus or in line to a throne, it’s a profoundly equitable moment. Babies are nothing but potential.
At the moment of death though, everything crystallises: the story has an ending. Word travels fast; the name of the deceased is passed around friends, family, acquaintances, and, if they were a public figure, half the world via social media. There’s a summing up, a judgement, a parading of defining moments (Olivia Newton-John in tight black trousers, Judith Durham’s voice soaring above 200,000 people at the Myer Music Bowl.) And—unless the person’s fame is more infamy—there is mourning. So much mourning.
When a famous person dies, there are public rituals that go far beyond what we accord to ordinary humans. Think of the barricading drifts of flowers that surrounded Buckingham Palace when Diana died. Mainstream media scramble to find members of the inner circle to share their recollections. Colleagues and former artistic collaborators tweet photos of themselves in the company of the deceased; they release statements ‘honouring’ their work. This online swarming has been labelled ‘grief hypejacking’ by one Australian academic, who says it verges on the commodification of grief.
William Gibson, whose antennae are ever-sensitive to the intersection of technology and pop culture, even used a faked celebrity death as a plot point in his novel Idoru. In the novel, thousands of fans flocked to the aptly named Hotel Di on a false report of a singer’s death, thus saving the heroes, who were trapped inside at the mercy of the bad guys.
The public mourning narrative skews positive—stories emerge of secret acts of charity and kindness—associates get on the radio to swear the dead person never had a bad word for anyone – and the letters pages are filled with testaments to how the celebrity’s work ‘touched’ ordinary people with their words/tunes/sporting talent/darn sheer charm, charisma and all-round niceness. But even if all this were true and the scales of heaven tilt all the way up to eleven in the dear departed’s favour, is the level of public mourning justified?
Beyond the impact of the person’s life and their much-discussed cultural impact, there is something else at work here. There must be a reason why ordinary people feel the need to post their feelings online, when their feelings are the same as those of a hundred thousand others; why they will attend state funerals for people they never met; why they write in online condolence books, often directly addressing the dead star as if they could still hear the adulation; why, in short, they perform mourning without any of the real-world connections that naturally give rise to grief.
Your favourite pop star, spin bowler or fashion designer, no matter how much you loved their work, can not be compared to a member of your own family. To do so would be insulting to your family and to the star’s real family, to whom the Academy Award winner was just, and irreplaceably, a mother/sister/uncle/son.
But neither can the rites of celebrity mourning be dismissed as mass hysteria or over-rating of the dead person’s impact on the world. People who consume the many pages and air-minutes of obituaries so eagerly offered up by the media may be engaging in what one academic called ‘recreational grief’—but why?
Why do we need to participate in these rituals, and what do they do for us? That same academic (a guy from Denmark, itself a world leader in dour and possibly borderline macabre cultural products) suggests that public grief ‘can be a response to an increasingly mute and hostile social environment that leaves less and less space for resonance’.
In other words, public mourning, whether for a celebrity or for a character in a TV show, is a space where people have permission to beat their chests and weep, without making everyone around them just a bit … uncomfortable. Anyone who’s lost a loved one will know the feeling that their grief is expected to have limits.
In March year, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was updated to include ‘Prolonged Grief Disorder’ in its list of certified mental disorders. The disorder ‘is characterized by this intense and persistent grief that causes problems and interferes with daily life’. In other words, grief that doesn’t stay in its allocated lane.
‘Americans are currently facing several ongoing disasters that have caused death and suffering, such as COVID-19, the wind-down in Afghanistan, floods, fires, hurricanes and gun violence,’ the entry notes.
There’s a lot to be sad about in the wider world, and in our personal lives. But socially speaking, there are hierarchies of grief. A spouse lost young rates prolonged, even lifelong grieving; an elderly relative or a pet, not so much. After a while, your friends may start changing the subject, or your doctor may suggest some pills. The world will tell you to move on.
Is it any wonder, then, that we seize on the opportunity to join in a collective howl when it comes along? It’s possible, after all, to truly mourn a musician or an actor, and at the same time seek catharsis in the emotional extremes permitted by the moment. (I remember, 18 years ago, attending the funeral of a woman who, I realised as I read the program, was born on exactly the same day as me. That was shock enough; I was also deep in my own cancer treatment and in fears of leaving my baby boy without a mother, and perhaps my tears fell a little faster and a little hotter out of self-pity: who could judge me if they did?)
To pretend that loss isn’t at least partly about ourselves is to deny what makes loss, loss. To lose, you have to have had something, and that having is always about your self, your personal and heartfelt attachment to the thing that’s gone. Hence the stories of how a singer’s music ‘touched’ fans—it’s not about the singer, it’s about the fans.
The distillation of a famous person’s life into a few dot points seems dehumanizing—Prince Rogers Nelson was more than Purple Rain and an unpronounceable symbol, Twiggy was a lot more than a pair of knees at Flemington. The celebrity is forced to stand in for a whole movement, for a defining moment in time. Their death becomes about their style of music, their generation, an entire bygone era.
Bygone. Gone, never to come again. Getting older is sometimes characterized as a process of letting go, and while that’s arguable—why should being 80 make one less relevant than being 8, as long as you’re alive?—there is this: that over a lifetime, we build up landscapes of culture, places and most of all people, and when parts of that landscape disappear, we can feel a little lost.
It’s a cliché to have an older person say ‘everyone I know is gone’ (I found half a dozen versions of that line on Google Books in a 60-second search), but it’s also something that really happens to survivors.
When we’re young, the stars and leaders of our times matter so much. They seem, if not immortal, at least immutable. So as they’re slowly replace by new stars, new names, we may not really notice—until they die, and we’re wandering a landscape where all the signposts have been replaced, all the old buildings have been knocked down with new ones where they stood.
One Finnish researcher (there may or may not be a pattern here to do with cold, dark nations) suggested that online collective mourning is at least a chance to stand in a community and feel something together. The ties of public mourning may be ‘weak’ but they are sympathetic, and make us feel less alone: not just in how sad we about our teenage idol dying, or how sad we are we’re not longer teenagers; just in, at the end, how sad we sometimes are.