To the Faithful (and Unknown) Departed

Exploring our fascination with and response to celebrity deaths.

Unless you’re one of those people living beneath a metaphorical rock, you know it’s been a rough year in entertainment. Various big names in music, television, cinema and pop culture history lost their lives for one reason or another: Walter Cronkite, Bea Arthur, DJ A.M., John Hughes, Farrah Fawcett, Ted Kennedy, Les Paul, Ed McMahon, Billy Mays, Dom DeLuise, Patrick Swayze and, of course, Michael Jackson. The public has been forced to say goodbye to powerhouse personalities we've always known but never met. Tears have been shed. Memorials have been held. Scathing articles have been written. Lives and accomplishments and characters have been placed under the microscope, separated into all of their pieces, then celebrated, mourned, ignored and mocked accordingly.

Yes, our preoccupation with celebrity continues without their presence—perhaps even becoming a bigger monster. Why is this? And furthermore … is it OK?

Consider the most discussed name on the rolling roster of celebrity
deaths: Michael Jackson. Yes, his untimely demise has and continues to
receive far too much time scrolling across the bottom of our TV
screens. And now the much-anticipated This Is It is in theaters,
a compilation of interviews and rehearsal footage from Jackson’s tour
producer Kenny Ortega. The movie even has an accompanying soundtrack of
unreleased music (proving that it is never too early for some
posthumous profit).

Some feel that Jackson was just too strange to be truly missed, that
because they never knew him they can make jokes about it all. But when
you stop and think about the music and entertainment of the last 40
years or so, the vast majority were in some way influenced by this
"weird" man who could hold thousands captive, change all the trends and
dance like a fool. And you've probably never been to a wedding or a
prom or even a bowling alley where his songs came on and someone didn't
cheer or run to the floor and feel invincible for three minutes. So
perhaps it makes sense that his death received that much attention—that
was his impact.

Nothing is off-limits ...

In the media, there seems to be this mindset that because a famous person is no longer around, their life is no longer their own, but should be delivered in full to the greedy hands of the masses. Nothing is off-limits. In the name of sentimentality and inquiring minds, they research and dissect the achievements and failures of the late greats, ranging from sexual to familial to professional in nature. It is not all together different from the attitude of the paparazzi, whose behavior can run unchecked for the sake of documenting that of others.

Social networking sites like Twitter only contribute to the free-for-all frenzy over celebrity deaths. Breaking headlines can now be seen first in status update form, such as in the case of the protests over the last Iranian election, or a recent “off-the-record” interview in which President Obama made a colorful remark about a not so off-the-record rapper. On the day of Michael Jackson’s demise, the booming website actually shut down as a result of the excess traffic from hysterical fans and followers seeking an outlet—think about how many of your friends had something about Michael Jackson as their status. Think about how you quoted "Thriller" or "Billie Jean" in your status for the next week. The list of trending topics now often reads like digital eulogies, such as “RIP Patrick Swayze.” But while Twitter and Facebook and other sites can encourage a sense of community and even contribute to the news-gathering process, they also allow everyone to give voice to opinions that may not merit a more respected medium.

A lot of times, it may seem appropriate that the world stop, that the media and public devote a certain amount of time and coverage to an individual who has deeply impacted our world, on both personal and public grounds. After all, a funeral or memorial is meant to include the deceased’s realm of influence. And sometimes, no matter how much of a person’s life could justifiably be open to public scrutiny, in the event of death, the great equalizer, it seems fitting to celebrate their accomplishments, however big or small.

Remembering without judgment?

While we may not have a personal and daily relationship with these people who, admittedly, make their lives a public and sometimes abominable display, we are still responsible for what we say about them. At times, our collective opinion and response to them can even determine their behavior. Judgment is not excused if practiced from a safe distance, and certainly not in the event that the subject is unable to give a rebuttal. In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, He warned: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5 NIV)

So where is the balance? How do we handle such fragile issues like a celebrity death with an appropriate sensitivity, while recognizing it has little to no direct correlation to our daily lives?

It’s simple, really. We remember that, second only to loving God, Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves. I imagine that when He said this, He wasn’t picturing you riding a bicycle down a Wonder Years-style suburban street, friendly and welcoming in the hazy evening light. No, He refers to all humanity as our “neighbors.”

On some level, we are required to show love to all people, whether they appear across the table or on a magazine cover. Everyone. Friends, family, enemies, strangers … maybe even the celebrities who annoyed us most of all.

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