Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Celebrities Die And So Will You

In recent weeks we've seen a lot of famous people die, especially musicians.  Lemmy Kilmister, Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Glenn Frey have all shuffled off this mortal coil.
Bowie's SF film,
The Man Who Fell to Earth

Death is one of the deepest issues we confront as human beings, and it has been for thousands of years.  What's relatively new is the internet-fueled cult of celebrity that provides the fabric of so much of our popular culture these days.

The Oddity of Mourning Celebrities

I'm not opposed to online expressions of grief for celebrities (see my tribute to Leonard Nimoy), but I do find it somewhat odd that we pour so much effort into grieving for people who are strangers.  There's also an interesting issue of grieving for our favorites while mocking others who do the same (see, "You Mourned David Bowie, but Mocked Glenn Frey.  Why?").  I wonder to what extent online celebrity grief represents an unhealthy reaction to the existential fact of death.  Are we engaged in the online denial of death?

I'll admit that I wasn't as big a fan of any of these people as I was of Leonard Nimoy.  I've always kind of liked David Bowie's music and The Man Who Fell to Earth is weird in a cool way, but I was never hip enough to be a real Bowie fan. I've heard "Hotel California" a few hundred too many times to have been an Eagles fan (sorry, Glenn Frey).  As much as I love heavy metal and bass players, Lemmy Kilmister's band Motörhead was never my favorite (I was far sadder about the death of Ronnie James Dio).  I admit that other than her song "Unforgettable," I didn't really follow Natalie Cole's career.  Alan Rickman was known for his portrayal of Snape in the Harry Potter films, but my favorite was his perfect voicing of Marvin the depressed robot in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005).


Mourning for Strangers?

Why do we mourn for strangers?  One possible response is that -- to their fans, at least -- these people aren't really strangers.  Bowie fans were inspired by Bowie's music and persona(s) in a deeply personal way.  Lemmy's attitude and lifestyle was a model for rock and metal fans wanting to say "fuck you" to the world.  Rickman basically was Severus Snape for millions of Harry Potter fans.

Still, I think there's something different about facing the death of a celebrity than of an actual loved one.  Celebrities may be in your life, but they were never part of it.  Grandma may not have been as cool as Glenn Fry or have had the voice of Natalie Cole, but she came to your birthday parties.  In my own experiences with grief, one of the oddest things is dealing with the sudden absence of a loved one.  When my Grandma died in 2014, I finally got to use "my Grandma died" as an excuse to my students rather than the other way around.  I can't say that there was anything cosmically odd about a 95 year old woman passing away. What was odd was the fact that she had been there my entire life and then, incongruously, one day she was not.
Natalie Cole

Fans of deceased musicians and actors will never enjoy future creations of these artists (unless we're talking about Tupac), and I in no way mean to diminish the fact that this is a legitimate source of grief.  Nonetheless, it is a different sort of grief, one that, thanks to social media, is increasingly public and at times increasingly fake.  How many people listened to David Bowie for the first time in decades upon hearing the news of his death?  And how many of us have felt the need to inflate our dedication to the fandom of a dead artist in a way that makes a celebrity's death a little more about ourselves?

The Online Denial of Death?

One of the strangest things about all this is the common trope on social media that "I can't believe Alan Rickman died!" or "Oh, no!  David Bowie can't be dead!"  I'm not saying people mean this sort of thing literally (unless the news source is dubious), but what does this form of expression tell us?
Rickman as Snape

My conjecture is this: since we have a sort of false closeness with celebrities, their presence in our lives was always a more static, one-way affair.  A loved one's absence is immediate.  A celebrity's absence is as remote as their presence.  The death of a loved one is shocking, but all too sadly believable.  The death of a celebrity is roughly as unbelievable as their life.  This makes it easier to deny.  It feeds all the more easily into the cultural denial of death that is especially prevalent in the United States.  Of course people don't really mean it when they say they can't believe some celebrity died, but part of them deep down really can't believe it.

Momento Mori as the Final Gift of the Artist?

What if, instead of using celebrity deaths to deny human mortality, we used their deaths as a sort of momento mori?  Instead of saying, "I can't believe it!" we might say, "Yes, celebrities die.  And so will I."  If someone with the voice of Bowie or Cole can die, so can you.

Some may call this morbid or unhealthy.  But I think many of us today harbor an unhealthy secret fantasy of immortality, or as Buddhists would say, a harmful hankering for permanence in an impermanent universe.  I don't necessarily think that death is bad or even terrifying.  Death may be required for our lives to have any meaning at all.  I've always liked the famous argument from Epicurus that when you're alive, you're not dead, and when you're dead you're not there to feel anything, so there's nothing to worry about!  Whether this argument is entirely convincing, I think it has some therapeutic value.

None of this means that facing death is easy.  But maybe the passing of celebrities could help us accept death rather than deny it.  Contemplating our mortality is part of what it is to be human just as much as the artistic endeavors to which these people dedicated their lives.  Perhaps their final gift to us could be to help us accept the reality of death, which, like art itself, is a way to explore what it is to be human.
What we are now, so you will become.


  1. I am now wondering if their deaths hit me harder because of the proximity to the anniversary of my father's death. I enjoy Alan Rickman's performances that I saw from Die Hard to GalaxyQuest, Quigley Down Under, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I was also of fan of Bowie as performance artist in his many guises from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke and beyond. Dio's legacy means much more to me than Lemmy's as well (have you heard the Dio tribute album? It makes me cry it is so beautifully done)

    Anyway, I wrote a piece on grief on my own blog. Not focusing on celebrity but on my own experience of it.

    1. That's a good point, Cheryl. These things might hit us harder if they're closer to the anniversary of a loved one's death.

      I haven't heard the tribute album, but I'll have to check it out. Dio was amazing.

      I did see your piece and enjoyed reading it. Thanks! It's always nice to remind everyone that grief is something we all experience.

  2. Maybe a reason why people grieve celebrities and write tributes to them is because when the celebrity that dies is one that they followed career-wise from childhood to adulthood. This may remind them that they are getting older and part of getting older is losing more and more things that you identified with in life. That is what makes the reality of death more difficult to accept.

    1. That's a great point. I think that's right. The idea that people who were part of your childhood or earlier life might die is upsetting for what it says about your own life. But then you could use this unsettling feeling to do some work when it comes to dealing with the fact of death.

  3. If we revere some celebrities in particular because we respect their achievements, their creativity, and their drive, the loss of the person means the loss of all those things, those lights that shine above the shades of gray of the rest of the more mundane world. But in addition, we may project ourselves or identify ourselves in some way onto their achievements, and cheer them on. Bowie's musicianship and creativity and Rickman's breadth of acting were both superb. I watched in wonder. Their death means the flickering out of those flames that shone brighter than bright, not because they were as good as they were, but because they were, in some way, a head above. And their achievements somehow fueled my own ambition or aspiration to that same level of creativity.

    1. Beautifully said! I have no problem with honest mourning from real fans. My criticisms, such as they were, are directed more at people who are a bit fake about it. While loss can be sad, I think it could also be a helpful lesson for us, a momento mori, as I called it.

  4. For me, the grief is for my lost opportunity to meet a hero. It's entirely selfish, as all grief probably is, but there you have it.

    1. That's definitely a bummer. I've regretting not seeing some people perform when I had the chance. Thanks for the comment!

  5. See my thoughts on Prince in this post:

  6. I know celebrities die its just i can't ever remember so many, one after another its kind of crazy. I mean i just watched Carrie Fisher on a new Graham Norton show one or two weeks ago. And just 2 days after George Michael wow.