Mourning the death of celebrities in our death-denying culture

David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Glen Frey. I’m sure there are others as well, but already 2016 has been a rough year on celebrities with these three deaths.

While never a huge Bowie fan, his music has been a persistent part of the soundtrack of my life since my early teens. Alan Rickman just may have been my all-time favorite actor. And not only was “Hotel California” the first song I ever slow-danced to (no joke), but I’ve been playing it a lot of my guitar this past year.

And so, with many across America and around the globe, I grieve the deaths of these talented men, who shared their art with us all.

There’s something odd and tragic and unifying and helpful about the deaths of artists and celebrities like the three we’ve lost so far this year.

The odd thing is that we grieve over people we never knew. Sure, they touched us through their art (or whatever it is that made them famous), but we never touched hands or shared words or laughed together. We treat them as if they’re our friends when they simply aren’t. We feel like we know them through their public personas, but we’re often surprised when we read later about who they really were in their private lives.

The tragic thing is that so many of them die badly.

John Lennon’s murder had a powerful impact on my budding teenage years, launching me into a full immersion of the work of The Beatles. No other music mattered to me for the next two years. But it took his tragic death to do so for me.

The death of Michael Jackson from his attempt to simply fall asleep is haunting. His insomnia caused such a desperation in him that he went to ridiculous measures to grab it, measures that killed him. A tragic end to a tragic life. And yet that death came in my daughter’s life at the same age John Lennon’s had come in mine. And so after her immersion in music postmortem, he continues to have a soft spot in her heart.

And that brings me to the unifying element in these deaths.

Celebrities are owned by the people. We give them fame and wealth and the freedom to do things none of the rest of us would or could do, but it is in exchange for being owned by us. We hold them in common.

It’s this common ownership that unites us when they die. All of us who carry a piece of them with us feel our kinship that much more closely upon their deaths.

When Michael Jackson died, I got a text message from one of my sisters. And within a minute, the other three guys I was sitting with also received texts about his death. And then we noticed that we were listening to “Billie Jean” being played in the background. A DJ was setting up for a wedding that evening and had also been informed of Michael’s death.

We were stunned by how quickly we were being informed by our loved ones of the death of someone significant to us all and how we all entered into a time of public mourning and reflection upon his impact on our lives. It was our death-of-JFK moment, for we will all remember what we were doing when we heard of MJ’s death.

But all of these things pale in comparison to the real gift that celebrities offer us when they die: They remind us of death itself and of the importance of grieving.

Our culture is adamant in its rejection of death. It is the “last enemy,” and we fight it tooth and nail.

My 86-year-old mother who says she is ready to die at any time takes a vast array of pills to keep herself alive. Talk about a paradox!

I’ve never seen an animal slaughtered and most of the meat I eat comes in boneless parts, except for the Thanksgiving turkey. Not only is this a convenience issue, we don’t want to be reminded that death was necessary for our continued living. And there are some among us who are so put off my the idea of eating something that came from another living creature that they’ve given up on meat altogether.

There was a time when each church had its own cemetery and kids who were educated in their church buildings would play among the graves. Now, we hide our graveyards or avoid them altogether, scattering ashes.

There was also a time, when the common room in each house was called the parlor. It was there that the body of a newly deceased person was kept and watched over to see if he’d wake up before being buried. This was called, appropriately, a wake. But now, we don’t bring bodies into our own parlors, we take them to funeral parlors. And in the early part of the last century, women’s magazines decided to get rid of the word “parlor” from our homes and renamed the same room the “living” room. Nice trick, eh?

We tried to banish death from our homes and from our lives by hiding it, disguising it, and renaming things associated with it. But it just won’t leave. The death of our favorite celebrities brings death home.

There are many reasons why we feel we need celebrities and there are many ways that we unload on them our desires for ourselves and the disappointments we have with ourselves, but it’s oddly in their deaths that they serve us best.

They remind us of our mortality and of our need to grieve.

And so I say, don’t shrug your shoulders at the deaths of the celebrities who have touched your life. Grieve. Be reminded of your own mortality and that of the rest of those you love and weep.

But for those of us who follow the one who died and rose again, the one who has come face-to-face with death and defeated it, we weep and smile at the same time. We weep at our loss, but we smile because we know that our hope in reunion someday is not the wishful thinking of most people. We know it to our certain future because it has been guaranteed by the Jesus who died and yet lives this very day.