Mourning & Celebrity Deaths

Words by: Emily Schofield-Cox

This week Alan Rickman, of Harry Potter and Diehard (and many more) fame, and David Bowie, of being David Bowie fame, passed away at age 69 after private battles with cancer. The western world was thrown into a strange kind of mourning – a very public, intense feeling of loss and of an even more permeating sense of nostalgia. It was Snape and Ziggy Stardust, for goodness sake!

This kind of loss – this public mourning of figures that we felt somehow belonged to us, because we grew up watching them on television or listening to them on the radio at our parents’ knees – is very weird. It is equal parts empathetic and selfish; we outwardly sympathise for the family and loved ones who have lost these men as a father, husband or friend, but we also feel the stinging sense of their loss as it concerns us. We shape the meaning of their death and of their life around what they were to us personally despite not knowing their everyday routines, or even their core beliefs and values.

The cult of celebrity, of worshipping an everyday person for their artistic endeavours, has evolved astronomically over the past few decades. We can see it in every aspect of fame – we know the love life and friendships of models, we feel betrayed on behalf of Jennifer Aniston, and we act as if we are the third party to the blooming relationships between stars. But this societal shift towards treating Woman’s Day or Vogue as our bible and celebrities as our gods is most evident when they die.

We miss them with an undeniable intensity; our grief, however detached, is real and unmistakable. Our disbelief at their apparent mortality – “I never thought he’d die, I just can’t believe it” – emphasises how deeply indoctrinated this celebrity culture is. We simultaneously dehumanise stars and over-humanise them. We invade their privacy and openly pass our judgements, looking to hit a nerve, because although we can acknowledge that the same treatment word hurt us, we can’t quite fathom that it has the ability to do the same to celebrities – they seem to big, too untouchable. Yet when they die and we posthumously decide their brilliance, we grieve for a single person far more than we do when we unflinchingly read that thousands have died in a natural disaster, or millions are dying from poverty.

We become obsessed with those who have died. The famous ’27 club’ is a prime example of this. Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Amy Winehouse all died at 27 years old, as did a few other members of this sad club, and have consequently been immortalised in our minds as ‘the ones who got away’ and the stench of unfulfilled potential cut short emanates from this concept. In her life, we belittled Amy Winehouse and ignored her obvious drug problem, yet in her death we collectively decide to remember her as someone who had much more to give and who just slipped through the cracks. Now that Rickman and Bowie have passed away at 69 so close together, will there be a 69 club? Or is that already a thing that you can’t tell your parents about and I haven’t been invited to?

The idea that our dead heroes could be flawed is hard to stomach. David Bowie had come out in support of fascism and Hitler, but also was a great supporter of Indigenous peoples and helped redefine what sexuality and gender were, paving the way for a more expressive and free following generation. But the way in which we mourn celebrities doesn’t allow for the admission and exploration of the deceased’s flaws or contradictions. They were either bad or good, and are forever immortalised in the public consciousness as such. If we decide that they can be categorically defined as good, we are prone to ‘play god’. We say that they should have taken Justin Bieber or so-and-so instead, or that heaven can keep so-and-so if they just give back David Bowie or Alan Rickman. It’s a strange sense of entitlement that, along with the growth of celebrity culture and the detached public grieving phenomenon, we have because of the prevalence and capacity for self-centeredness that social media gives us.

I don’t know whether or not grieving for a celebrity who made art that meant something to you is inherently bad or good – I think it is decidedly in the grey area, as the way in which we as a society pick and choose who is to be mourned and who is to be forgotten is a sad and scary insight into the power of a collective social brain. I think that the power of losing a public figure who you subconsciously assumed was always going to be there shouldn’t be underestimated, bur nor should be our power as a society to get caught up in the cyclical nature of the cult of celebrity. It’s not always rational; I remember crying myself to sleep when Cory Monteith died, despite never having watched an episode of Glee, purely because his death came at a time where I was already feeling sad, and I couldn’t consciously separate my own feelings from the feelings of loss being thrown at me on social media and the news. But whatever the reason for grieving a celebrity may be, I think they are justified and real feelings of loss that shouldn’t be belittled. I do think, though, that it poses a question about the extent to which celebrity culture has permeated our thinking.