Celebrity Death and the Secularization of Mourning

Over the past year, two celebrity deaths hit me hard: Robin Williams and Leonard Nimoy. I did not know either man personally, but both hold profoundly important places in my life for a variety of very personal reasons. And it wasn’t just me: In the aftermath of both deaths, the social media networks I use were inundated with images and words about the deceased, an ever-flowing cascade of grief and mourning.

Most of these people who shared my grief over these losses are friends, at least by one degree of separation (friends of friends on Twitter or Facebook) but still, I know them. They come from different walks of life and different belief/non-belief systems and different social groups. Some are rich, a few are middle class, most are working poor. Where we do not align in so many ways (especially regarding religious faith, natch) we all came together to mourn. Such is the nature of celebrity death: always a spectacle.

But that’s nothing new. Celebrity death – whether the passing of royalty or a popular political or entertainment figure – has been a spectacle since the dawn of history, possibly before. In the modern era here in the U.S., we’ve seen the deaths of presidents and movie stars overwhelm the media and capture the attention of everyone in the country for days if not weeks at a time.

I particularly remember when Princess Diana died and the global uproar over her death. From a distance, now, it seems as if to me everything stopped for a week. From the day of her death (Aug. 31, 1997) to the day of her funeral (Sept. 6, 1997), there was nothing but mass mourning for Princess Di. I’m sure businesses stayed open and I probably went to work, but I don’t remember it that way. What I do remember clearly is the constant barrage of television coverage and, on the still nascent Internet, web coverage. It was inescapable. Even in the U.S., the world as I knew it had hit the “pause” button in order to share the monumental, crushing collective grief people were feeling.

Me? Not so much. My father had died the year before and I wanted no part of mourning for a celebrity I did not care about and did not know.  But there I was, a small dinghy of personal grief and loss floating aimlessly across a sea of public mourning. I was angry. About everything. All the time.

And yet, I watched the funeral. We all did, and by “we all” I mean everyone in the whole country who was not in a coma or putting out a fire or something. It was eerie, but only in that way the world gets quiet right after a hurricane: empty streets and sidewalks, the quiet hum of humanity at pause. Mind you, this funeral started at 5 a.m. Saturday morning where I live. Technically it lasted an hour. My roommate got up to watch it though and so did a lot of people – then, of course, it was replayed in whole several times by all the major networks, all day long. The whole day was one long funeral dirge.

Yet, it wasn’t a religious experience in the way a funeral held at Westminster Abbey probably should be. There were prayer services held by people all week, yet for the most part it was a very secular experience in the end. I don’t think it was intended to be, of course, but the fact is that you cannot have such a wide variety of people from such disparate backgrounds mourning together and not have it be secular. Either the religious aspect must become so heavy as to drown out all other voices, or a simple neutral (secular) balance must be found.

Religions manage to keep hold of people’s minds and hearts by giving them common ground via text and ritual and community. It is something that atheists tend to eschew, criticize and downplay, but when it comes to mourning, such things tie people together in their grief. It’s hard to replace that. Yet when I tuned in online to find my Facebook feed a wall of shared memories and heartfelt goodbyes to Leonard Nimoy, I felt less alone.

Can we, as atheists with no real common denominator other than what we don’t believe in, use celebrity mourning as any kind of guide or measure for more personal tragedies? I think so. The thing that strikes me about the events I bring up here, from Princess Di to Robin Williams to Leonard Nimoy, is that the mourning was public. That seems incredibly obvious to point out, but think about this in comparison to personal losses. People refrain from bringing up the names of dead family members, don’t refer to their deaths, and generally help us build a wall of isolation around our losses. It is diametrically opposite of what we do with secular mourning for celebrities, where memories are trawled, images shared, essays written, art created. When we lose someone close to us, we hide our grief away because it is so painful; when we lose a celebrity we cared about (for whatever reason), we share our grief for the same reason.

The death of a popular celebrity brings out the common grief we all share. Not knowing the deceased personally creates a layer of distance from their lives and deaths that allows us to paint their memory with colors that resonate only with us. (There are, of course, tin-hatters who are convinced they have some mystical connection to the celebrity, but I think most of us know better.) We mourn for the collective loss, and we feel nostalgia over what that celebrity represented to us individually. We share our grief.

When I was angry at everyone about being so invested in Princess Di’s death, I was, honestly, jealous. No one had laid wreaths at my father’s door or written beautiful testaments to his life and career. It was all on me, his only child, to remember him, and the culture around me wanted me to do that privately, quietly, and without fanfare. There is the lesson to be learned: that what I wanted, what I craved, was recognition of my loss and honor given to my father’s passing away by people who may not have even known him (almost certainly did not know him) but could respond to the death of a good man by simply listening to me talk about him, by willingly taking up the burden of sharing my grief.

Those in religious communities have structures in place for sharing that kind of memory, for talking about their dead (at least for a little while). Those of us who do not have that kind of community around us, other than immediate family and friends, would do well to look towards celebrity mourning as a template for our own mourning. I’m not suggesting that it is necessary to plaster your loved one’s life story all over Facebook; but memory is tenuous and grief is too heavy a weight to carry alone.

If we can share, remember, and memorialize a celebrity with touching, emotional statements and art, I wonder how beautifully we can mourn losses far more personally important to us. I have not seen much of that, from the atheists I know. I’m not sure what forms it could even take, but I know it’s a concept worth exploring.

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