Celebrity Funerals

The end of the year is actually one of the most enjoyable times to watch the mainstream news media. In particular, the tradition of airing over-the-top montages of a year’s worth of news is what CNN lives for. A typical year will provide more terrible disasters and human suffering than can properly be crammed into a 3-hour special hosted by Anderson Cooper. Once you add in a sprinkling of goofy offbeat stories and a few sappy human interest pieces you’ve got yourself some pretty compelling déjà-vu that will fill plenty of airtime between Christmas and New Year’s.

But aside from pretending that we live in apocalyptic world of simultaneous tsunamis, earthquakes, assassinations and financial collapse, these looks back on the year are  actually a valuable public service that all the major networks dutifully perform.

Not only do these retrospectives remind us of the sheer insanity and calamity that we’re capable of producing in a very short period of time, but they also jolt us into comparing our initial reactions to events with our more mature, considered opinions of those same events following a few months of rumination.

The biggest political story in Canada this year was a twofer – the NDP’s huge gains in Quebec and then leader Jack Layton’s rather sudden death from cancer.  His death rightly gripped much of the country for a little under two weeks, but of course not everyone was equally moved.

Jack Layton (1950-2011)

Enter Michael Coren, a pretty conservative Catholic talk show host, writer, etc., who wrote an editorial about his “friend” Jack Layton’s death. Basically his beef was that the Canadian people were collectively over-reacting to his untimely death, and that we should let the newly-minted Leader of the Opposition Rest In Peace.

Now I cringe at celebrity worship more than most people I know.  My unusual hatred for public acts of fame adoration probably explains why I never go to big concerts or book signings or anything where I’m expected to participate in a collective rejoicing in the presence of another human being. Weird.

So with that in mind I’m willing to allow that Coren was playing the unwelcome, but badly needed, voice of reason. His article can be charitably understood as trying to put a lid on the overzealous public commemoration of just another, mortal man.  Fair enough.

Coren (R) at the Kentucky Derby of Stupid (L)

But just when he had piqued my reasonable side, he went and showed his work. It’s the calculations by which he comes to his conclusion that amused and dismayed me.

You can read his article for yourself here, but here’s a rundown of his thoughts:

Coren denounces the political opportunism of Layton’s like-minded mourners, who shamelessly infuse his death with political overtones. He criticizes the lavishness of the ceremonies surrounding the commemoration of Layton’s death and wonders if that money might not have been put to better use, say, actually helping the poor people who Layton purportedly sought to help his entire life. Coren goes on to lament that in the case of Layton’s death, we are “morally classified by how much we weep for people we did not know”.

Substitute “Jack Layton” for “Jesus Christ” and I wish I’d written it myself. But of course, Coren’s editorial was written not two weeks after Jack Layton died and Jesus Christ died (according to my calculations) approximately one thousand nine hundred and seventy eight years ago.

So what gives? Coren unfavorably compares Layton’s eulogies to the wisdom of a couple of Christian philosophers and then questions the integrity of the atheists and the anti-Christians who mourned him so publicly. He seems pissed off: Layton didn’t even win every election he ran in, for Fuck’s sake!

In a banal and indeed textbook case of self-deception, Coren implores us to reconsider our ways. These massive collective displays of emotion all for the sake of one lousy, mortal, flawed, eating, shitting human being? Are you kidding me? Coren is so over Jack Layton’s death, he wants us to know.

Now, Jack Layton was no Jesus Christ, whatever that would actually mean. He didn’t perform any miracles [insert turning Pepsi into Orange Crush joke here], did not descend directly from any (known) deities… Really, the two don’t have all that much in common. We can assume that Jack admired Jesus, and maybe, if you’re the speculating superstitious type, just maybe, Jesus liked Jack Layton as well.

But this is missing the point. The larger question Coren stumbles upon is the human panache for public displays of grief when a well-known person dies.  I can only really speak from experience, which limits me to the English speaking world in the last twenty years or so. But even this small sample has given me something to run with.

Public grief for public figures manifests itself in some genuinely ridiculous ways – a point I would certainly grant to Coren. Who among us really defends the absurd, orgasmic reaction of the mass media to a celebrity death? Those who work in the ‘news’ media, for one. And the celebrities that depend upon the media for their financial and professional survival certainly do too.

Too many of us lowly media sponges participate in the effusive saturation coverage of the death, which takes the same well-rehearsed structure (with minor idiosyncratic variations each time).

  • The News Flash
  • The Statements of Condolence from Public Officials or Celebrities (usually both)
  • The Outpouring of Public Grief (flower and Bristol board shrines, the condolence books, the visitation of the body)
  • The Memorial
  • The Funeral
  • The $ Commemoration $ (actually begins some time while the person is still alive, but kicks in once it’s officially a flatline).

This works for singers, former presidents, actors, noted legislators, trusted TV personalities, Royalty, and so forth. Very different-seeming people are apparently capable of eliciting such similar, even formulaic, outpourings of grief.

How do these disparate people produce this media-fueled reaction? I can think of two major avenues of achieving such levels of fame, both roughly characterized by the relation of the person to the mass media. Some are highly parasitic upon the media, like almost all performers and self-promoters. Others are reluctant manipulators of the media,  like those who must use it for political or ideological reasons. I would count Layton (or, say, Vaclav Havel) in this second group, whereas most major celebrities, like Michael Jackson, belong squarely in the first.

Now Jack Layton was no Michael Jackson. Yes, they were both loved, hated, and above all famous – probably one of the only meaningful things they had in common.  But the very public nature of their lives and the type of public grief they evoked when they died makes them members of an exclusive stratum of society. Steve Jobs recently claimed his rightful spot in their company, along with Princess Diana, Mother Theresa and handful of others.

Michael Jackson (1958 -2009)

Those operating in this stratum invariably use some (or almost all!) of the time-honoured media techniques and tricks that foster a sense of closeness, trust, respect and admiration in people they will never actually meet face to face.

This flirtation with the masses via the media is a delicate dance perfected by some, and botched by many. But there are many tricks that work. For example:

  • Giving guided tours of your house to a camera crew (MTV’s Cribs style)
  • Talking to the camera as if it were a person
  • Providing teasing glimpses of private time (Family photos/ home videos, etc.)

These and many other subtle media routines lay the foundation for the outpouring of grief at the end of a famous life. And we non-famous types make this all possible by letting ourselves get swept up in the culmination of a famous existence. We jump at the chance to see a little deeper into a glamorous life once it has ended.

Our morbidity, or salacious love of gossip, our curiosity, and our tendency toward social conformity all conspire to ensure that even if we don’t care about a particular famous death, we make ourselves open to learning the details all the same.  We allow ourselves to collaterally absorb the basic information. How did she die? Where was she? How old was she again? We allow ourselves to participate despite our embarrassment about the fuss being made.

Death, of course, is the most powerful imposition of the natural world upon the material life of a great and adored person.  Full of contradiction, like all social events, the death of a celebrity is the humiliating tyranny of mortality and the ennobling glow of an aesthetic experience come to an end.

But Coren makes a big mistake. Just because Layton and, say, Jackson used similar well-honed media tactics to build rapport with the public and to create for themselves a well-defined public image, their actual achievements are not on par. Entertainers and political leaders do not have a moral equivalence, and especially not in this case!

What Layton did in his public life was not aimed at personal fame or wealth – it was largely in the service of his ideals and his desire to help and serve his fellow citizens.

When Donald Trump finally dies, for example, I suspect his funeral’s media coverage will be in the same stratum in the United States as Layton’s was in Canada.

You don't have to die, but some kind of disappearing would be nice.

But hopefully most people won’t make the mistake that Coren did. A huge over-the-top funeral partially worships celebrity for its own sake, to be sure. But not all celebrities are equal, nor do they all view celebrity as a worthy goal in itself. Coren should be among the first to recognize this about his late friend.

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