Dr. David Cowan
Many celebrities have died of late, the latest being Prince. These are talented people who have had varying levels of success in their life. In no way is this blog to be an attack on the memory of the singer/songwriter, whose greatest legacy in my opinion is Sinead O’Connor’s rendition of Nothing Compares to U and the amazing video that went with it. What I do want to question is the way we grieve today
The death of Prince led to an outpouring of grief by the political, entertainment and media complex which overshadowed the tragic death of a family of 8 in Ohio, muting even the anti-gun lobby, as its chief spokesman was busy annoying the Brits and the rest were too busy shedding purple tears. We have since had the mindless execution by ISIS supporters of Canadian John Ridsdel, by beheading.
It seems to me there is something of an anatomy to the death of a celebrity. The classic example is the death of Princess Diana. The Sunday Times newspaper in London the week before she died had a major feature article on why she was a spoiled Princess; it really was a full scale attack on her. The edition the Sunday after she died had her raised to sainthood. Tony Blair and his spinmeisters took the opportunity to politicize the death. The same night as she was killed there were investigations into the killing of an entire village of women and children in Algeria, but hey, that’s not news.
It seems to me we lose proportion. Social media and 24-hour television overdose on the story, and the celebrated life is stripped of all the downside, such as the fact they were vilified (Diana) or were attempting a comeback (Prince). In the meantime, life in all its pain and glory goes on, often underreported, while anyone saying the wrong thing or pointing out inconvenient truths is instantly vilified.
The loss of Prince hard on the heels of David Bowie, led celebrity human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger to tweet what a tragic year this has been so far. I tweeted back to her that surely every year is a tragic year, with many dying in poverty, loneliness & anonymity, with no-one to care for them or about their demise. Added to which is the daily private grief of “ordinary” people. Do we really need to overdose on these deaths? Many of the people tweeting platitudes last week probably hadn’t even listened to Prince in over a decade, if at all in some cases. What does this say?
It does trouble me a little that the various deceased celebrities had control over their destiny, and they had wealth. Yes, money doesn’t buy happiness. Yes, in some cases they obviously had psychological problems. Yes, sometimes it has just been the death that comes to all of us, whether it is too soon or at a natural time. However, what troubles me more is the way this overshadows the fact that there are many people, like the Algerian villagers and the Canadian citizen, who had no choice. Their death tell us so much more about the root of our human tragedy and the way we grieve today.
The death of a celebrity says something important about out contemporary communication age. It is about story, about narrative. There is a desire to be part of a story, so people insert themselves into the story by tweeting or going to the site of a death to lay down flowers and soft toys, perhaps to get on TV themselves. In this way people can feel they have become part of the story; very postmodern. It is the last service performed by the dead celebrity.
This blog is not to insult memories or to belittle the true grief people feel, and certainly not that of the people who were actually close to the deceased. They need to grieve. The point here is that what these celebrity deaths signify is the deep spiritual yearning that we have as humanity. It shows we have a spiritual side in the rough and tumble of a troubled world, and that we still seek an outlet for our emotions and yearning. The communications age has simply produced its own spaces of grieving, and its own liturgy.
The church and other places of worship used to give us the space and liturgy to do this, but secular society has given them a peripheral role today. In fact death seems to be the last place of remaining relevance for churches in secular society, because we haven’t in fact found a real replacement. We still don’t know how to grieve as humanity, and the liturgy remains unfulfilling.