The recent death of Patrick Swayze marked the end of a season filled with a significant number of celebrity deaths: Farrah Fawcett, Steve McNair, Walter Cronkite, Bernie Mac and, of course, Michael.
With each fatality came a voice reading the obituary and then, often, a panel discussing the validity of the obituary, obligatory comments from police officers and household staff, investigations about funeral – and burial – arrangements and shocking news about who attended the funeral and how they acted during the service (His children cried?! Really?!), complete with a panoramic view of whose mascara wasn’t corrected for the television cameras.
In the background, subtle and persistent, was one refrain: ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching, here’s your change!
But, reporting about celebrity deaths is nothing new, will likely never change, and, in fact, can’t. Or at least not on its own.
Every year, countless university students study Greek myths about heroes and gods. While these texts serve to provide a foundation for much of English literature (neither Shakespeare nor DiCaprio invented Romeo), they also serve as a precursor to modern entertainment “news” programs. We still make our own heroes, and it sure works better if they come in big families. (Granted, these days, you can become a hero simply by being in a big family.) For whatever reasons, humans judge each other to determine who is most desirable, and once we find that crowd, we love to hate them, hate to love them and everything in between.
Reporting on celebrity deaths and every aspect of the subsequent grieving process is inevitable. “We” have deemed virtually every detail of their lives – from their romantic relationships and almost-interests, to their family successes and destructions, bodies, homes, cars, pets and bikinis – worthy of our time, money, conversation and thought. (Case in point: the ink you’re reading, that I’m telling you to read.) It follows, then, that when we expect someone’s “crib” to be spectacular, we’ll want to make sure the procession surrounding their casket is the same.
We do care – or at least we respond with some emotional response we’ve mistaken to be true compassion. And even if we say we don’t care, we at least cared enough to make our reaction a debatable topic. So the only question left to consider is why we have these discussions at all.
Celebrities are a commodity, lined up for our selection next to products cleverly designed to increase our weight and decrease our wealth. We say we are self-sufficient, but we encrust ourselves to these stories like barnacles, hoping to obtain something from them. Once a living, breathing human, celebrities become to the masses symbols of youth, sex, freedom, wealth and power. And when they die, we lose the image of ourselves we wanted to see in the faces we airbrushed and covered with make-up.
And then we tune in to watch their grief, and, at last, have something in common.