Do we overly glorify the recently-dead in public life? I do not mean those dead who are close to us, but refer instead to the media’s treatment of celebrities and high-profile figures who have passed away. Do we suddenly create a saint out of them due to their death, no matter the actual facts of their life?
I have mulled over this for a while, but was finally prompted to write on it after the recent death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. I am not going to talk about Mr Castro’s life, politics or legacy – certainly a minefield I do not want to navigate – but I will briefly discuss the reactions of the world to his death, as portrayed in the western media.
We might expect political figures who are considered to be on the left of the political spectrum to be more warm to Mr Castro than those on the right or in the centre. Certainly, Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party offered rather warm condolences; on the other hand, President-Elect Donald Trump seemed to almost praise the passing of the Cuban leader, denouncing him as a “brutal dictator”. Far more surprising was the praising tribute offered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who as a Liberal might be expected to deplore Mr Castro’s authoritarian form of rule. While this is an isolated example, it does somewhat exemplify my view that the less-savoury elements of a public figure’s actions are often ‘forgotten’ in the immediate aftermath of their death.
We have lost quite a few notable public figures this year, David Bowie and Alan Rickman being two early and prominent examples. After they passed away, the expected flood of tributes poured in from a multitude of figures across the globe. The dead are always portrayed as leading figures in their respective fields, great talents, inspirational people; tributes are usually gushing with praise. The media will be flooded with hastily-thrown together video clips and features on the dead individual; highlights of their careers will be repeated ad infinitum. Then, after whatever is considered a suitable period of elegiac mourning, we will not hear about them again, until the inevitable scandal surfaces a few months down the line. Dare I mention the elephant in the room, Jimmy Saville?
I am perhaps being a little flippant; in any case, I do not wish to suggest that these individuals did not contribute greatly to their respective fields, or that they do not deserve to be mourned. Certainly, they do. However, I do find a lot of the treatment they get from the Media rather unpleasant. Their deaths become front-page news, entertainment for the masses; eulogisers are almost masturbatory in their tributes, competing to appear the most grieving. After a few days, they are forgotten, as the public gets bored. I feel it somewhat strips dignity from their deaths – the funerals of several high-profile celebrities have essentially been made into entertainment spectacles.
Of course, this is all understandable. Nobody wants to think poorly of the dead – it is almost tacitly taboo to do so in our culture. I believe this is especially true of those who die young, who are often made into virtual saints as a result of their untimely deaths – a posthumous reputation that is perhaps unwarranted.
I will, if I may, take the example of Diana, Princess of Wales, who died so tragically in France almost two decades ago. Her sudden death led to a huge welling of public mourning, no doubt understandable due to her extremely-high popularity. Yet was she made into something more than she actually was?
My second example in John Lennon. I greatly appreciate his musical work, and his violent death was horrific. His impact on modern popular music was no doubt significant. Yet do people remember him through rose-tinted glasses?
In 2002, the BBC conducted a public survey of the “100 Greatest Britons”. This was an open television poll with a very vague premise, and so obviously reflects public opinion rather than rigorous analysis. In the final tally, Princess Diana was voted the 3rd greatest Briton, above even William Shakespeare and Sir Isaac Newton; John Lennon was decided to be the 8th, far above figures such as Alan Turing and Sir Tim Berners-Lee. I don’t mean to disparage the opinion of the Great British public, but really?
While the poll was obviously not serious and the methodology flawed, it does reveal how much the ‘cult of the dead celebrity’ has an impact on our views of public figures. Whatever you think of Princess Diana’s accomplishments, I find it hard to believe that anybody would think they were greater than those of Shakespeare. While John Lennon was undoubtedly influential, I think the major reason he was voted above his fellow Beatles in the poll was due to the fact that he was dead, had been so for some time, and had passed away in such violent (and sensational) circumstances.
There is, I guess, a cultural devotion to youth. The young are seen as more ‘pure’ than the old; physically they are generally more attractive and in better shape, and have had less time to accumulate both metaphorical and literal ‘dirt’. They pass away at the height of their careers rather than at the tail-end – John Lennon died as a rather rebellious icon and is remembered as such, while the rest of the Beatles have become establishment figures. Who is to say that he would not have done so himself, if given the chance to age and mature? Of course, all we can do is speculate, and the only concrete evidence we have is the life he led before being murdered. To suggest that he might have changed seems almost sacrilegious to many, who get defensive if you suggest criticism or alternatives to their view of their hero.
Death is always a tragedy, and I firmly believe that over-eulogising is a lesser evil than celebrating it. I remember being somewhat sickened by the celebrations seen in the United States over the death of Osama Bin Laden – no matter how terrible his crimes (and I do not suggest by any means that his assassination should have been mourned), to cheer at news of a death is to lose much of the moral high ground.
Nevertheless, the cult of celebrity that seems endemic to human nature becomes only stronger after death. The mass media love to milk our morbid interest in the still-warm corpses of dead celebrities. I remember a wonderful quote from Skulduggery Pleasant, a beloved book from my childhood: “Dead writers sell”. The deaths of famous figures are used to increase clicks, views and ad revenue, which is unfortunate. Furthermore, it suggests that their deaths matter more than those of the thousands of individuals who are enormously influential ‘behind-the-scenes’, but who do not have the public recognition of others. I would rather a quiet, sober and measured reflection of their life, as seen in so many wonderful obituaries published quietly every day in newspapers, than the glorifying beatification and entertainment spectacle that we often get on television and online.