(This article was previously published in Crossway and the Church of England Newspaper.)
A Time To Mourn?
Ros Clarke, Online Pastor for the Diocese of Lichfield
David Bowie. Alan Rickman. Ronnie Corbett. Victoria Wood. Prince. The grim reaper’s star-studded roll call shows no sign of letting up in 2016. According to the BBC’s More or Less programme, this is likely to continue, as the first generations of mass celebrity created by TV and popular music are now reaching their 60s and 70s.
Public response to celebrity death may have been kickstarted by the outpourings in response to Princess Diana’s sudden and violent end in 1997 at the age of 36. Even those of us who didn’t quite understand it were swept along by it. In subsequent years, social media mourning may have replaced the crowds lining streets with flowers, but the depth of feeling continues to be real.
And yet, it is a strange phenomenon. After all, what is there to grieve for a person you did not know?
First, there is always genuine sadness at the ending of a life. Any life. It is a reminder of the broken, disordered world we live in where death holds sway. This is particularly true for those who die before their three-score years and ten. So, it’s right that we should mourn the death of a celebrity as much as we should mourn the death of a nameless refugee.
Second, I wonder if for many of us, this grief is compounded by a sharpened awareness of our own mortality. Celebrities can become Dorian Grays, showing a youthful public appearance which hides their aging or their illness. It’s only in death that we are confronted with their mortality. And, therefore, ours. If the artists we listened to as teenagers are now 60 or 70 years old, how old does that make us? If the beloved TV presenters of our childhood are dying, how soon will it be our turn?
Third, of course, there is a real sense of loss for the work that person produced. Artists – whether in music, words, comedy or paint – teach us how to be human. They have a profound influence on us and inevitably we will be sad when their work comes to an end.
So there is grief and there is loss, and very often it will feel as though the right way to honour someone in their death will be to share that with others. These are people we knew publicly and so we will want to mark their passing publicly too.
But we must not confuse the sadness and loss we feel at the death of a celebrity with the kind of grief which follows the death of someone we truly knew and loved. For all we might have been profoundly influenced by someone’s work, we did not know them. We did not love them, but the work they produced.
Whenever we are saddened by the death of a celebrity, we need to remember those who are mourning them as a beloved family member, partner or a friend. Their grief is deep and significant in a way that ours is not. Similarly, we must not overshadow the grief of those who are mourning someone who was never famous. Their loss of a loved one is more profound than ours for any celebrity figure.
So let’s be careful and thoughtful in our responses to the deaths of public figures. Let’s not make ourselves into the chief mourners. Let’s not use the same language we would in a situation of personal grief. Let’s acknowledge our sadness and use it as an opportunity to reflect on our own mortality. Let’s remember that death is real and urgent and take that as a reminder to proclaim the good news of the Lord Jesus. Let’s preach as dying men and women to dying men and women.