Mark Fairweather Tall
Reflecting on the 'Celebrity Death Epidemic'
Terry Wogan - just one of the celebrities to die this year
The first few months of 2016 have seen an unusual number of people die who were household names: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood and Prince, to name but a few. Back in February, Newsweek was already calling this the year of “The Great Celebrity Death Epidemic”. As the weeks have gone on the death rate of some of our best-known and best-loved actors, comedians and musicians has been widely noted. In this social media age, there has been no shortage of those expressing sadness and grief at the passing of someone they may never have met personally, but nevertheless, feel they know. Some have started to ask the question, “Is 2016 cursed?” Others have protested against the year, writing “Enough 2016”.
Statisticians have been asking whether the number of celebrity deaths is the ‘new normal’ or is it just a ‘statistical blip’. A number seem to be siding with the former view. They point to the pop music boom and the rise of television stars from the 1960s onwards to suggest there is an increased pool of household names. They are now reaching their 70s and 80s so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are more deaths that hit the news. With more and more people being classed as ‘celebrities’ it seems likely that there will be a continuation of the number of deaths considered significant enough to hit the headlines. And that means it is likely that we will continue to see tributes poor out within minutes of the announcement of someone’s death as we can express grief more widely and publically than ever before.
There is much that we could reflect around this. Let me suggest just three things…
1) Tributes, whether communicated by social media, or a card to the family, or through a phone call, can be a very important part of marking someone’s death. For some, the sharing is a bonding experience; for the family of the dead person, it can be a consolation to know that the person was appreciated and valued by others. The tributes say that the person’s life mattered. In one sense it is a shame that the person who has died never gets to hear the impact they made on someone’s life. In fact, there are some who have sought to remedy this. I was reading an article in ‘The Times’ about this (entitled, “Eulogies are too good to waste on the dead”) and they reported that a company called ‘Tribute’ has been set up in America to ensure that no one need miss their own eulogy: “Instead of sending cards or emails on a birthday, customers can now send friends and loved ones videos of emotional speeches that would normally be reserved for a funeral.” The writer goes on to reflect on some of the drawbacks of this, like, if someone says something nice about you, you may feel that you have to be equally effusive back. However, the article reaches the conclusion that it is the little things that build up over time that are most important than a grand gesture - a text, a card, a quick email, a word of appreciation – these things can make a difference. Sometimes in the busyness of life, these are the things that we don’t make time for. Tributes are right and proper when someone dies but why not communicate this to them whilst they are living?
2) Day by day we write the legacy for which we will be remembered. Alfred Nobel invented (amongst other things) dynamite. When his brother died, a newspaper wrote an obituary about Alfred, mistakenly thinking that it was he who had passed away rather than his brother. The newspaper said, “The merchant of death is dead” and portrayed him as the man who had made it possible to kill more people more quickly than anyone else ever before. Nobel was taken aback by the way in which the world was going to remember him after his death, so he took action. He used his fortune to establish the Nobel Prize and today many more are familiar with the Nobel Prize than how he made his money. Clearly the things that we do day by day effect the way we will be remembered. It is an interesting question to ask of ourselves, “How do I want to be remembered?” And such reflection may affect the way that we live.
3) As celebrities die and the news breaks, it is a sobering reminder for all of us that we are mortal beings. It can be too easy for the reality of death to be pushed to the back of our minds – it becomes something we know happens but don’t think about, especially in relation to ourselves. However, when someone dies we can use this moment to think about what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul writes: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” Paul tells us the gospel message that there is hope in death. He doesn’t play down its significance by telling us not to grieve. Death is serious; when Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he describes death as an ‘enemy’. Instead he encourages us to grieve in a different way… to grieve with hope. This is because the enemy ‘death’ has been defeated by Jesus who died and rose again. Jesus is the first fruit of this victory, a victory that one day we will share in; for now it is our steadfast and certain hope.
Death will go on being a part of life. Sometimes we will be affected by it in a minor way through the death of a celebrity; sometimes more seriously as a loved one dies; One day, it will be our turn. As we recognise this, though, we can live differently and positively because we have hope in Jesus.
 ‘Eulogies are too good to waste on the dead’ by Jenni Russell, published 21/4/16