Suburban Turmoil: Death becomes you

Wednesday, July 15, 2009 at 11:00pm

If television news were the Loveless Cafe, untimely deaths would be its biscuits.

Every night, our local newscasts air a continuous reel of stories about unassuming men and women whose souls have been ripped cruelly from their bodies, thanks to a drunk driver or a stray bullet or a raging storm. The reports usually include statements from bewildered friends and neighbors about the saint-like qualities of the recently departed.

“He was a great guy. He mowed my grass once when my lawnmower broke.”

“She was a real sweet girl. Always had a smile and a wave.”

When you stop and think about it, it’s sort of amazing that ordinary people, who can be so irritating in life, manage to achieve wild popularity and stature when death takes them too soon. Facebook pages are created in their memory. Memorial funds are opened at local banks. And, this being Music City, someone somewhere inevitably will write a song about it.

Death is the best press you can get, really. Because no matter how many neighbors you sued or customers you cheated while you were alive, it’s safe to assume that no one will tell a reporter, “He was a real a$$hole,” when you die.

And if the ordinary dead earn this kind of slate cleaning, celebrities who check out early have it made.

Just look at Steve McNair, whose untimely death exposed a sordid extramarital affair. Eight thousand people attended his memorial services in Nashville, including Governor Phil Bredesen and Mayor Karl Dean. Friends, journalists and fans used terms like “a beautiful man,” “one of us,” and, “always a gentleman,” to describe him.

But that was nothing compared to the elaborate sendoff given to Michael Jackson. His memorial service was viewed live by up to a billion people, many of whom seemed more than willing to forget about the allegations of child molestation, drug dependency, and debt that had plagued our King of Pop during his last decade.

Anyone daring to write about the negative aspects of the recently departed gets an earful from irate readers. I learned this the hard way, after writing about the death of Anna Nicole Smith on my blog two years ago. Fed up by news headlines calling her “a woman who persevered when others would’ve given up,” and a “pop-culture icon,” I let the Internet know exactly what I thought.

“I'm sad about what Anna Nicole's death and our treatment of it says about us as a culture,” I wrote. “Live a decent, selfless life and you're lucky to get a small write-up in the obituary section of the local paper. Do drugs, model yourself after Marilyn Monroe, and generally embarrass yourself on a near-daily basis and when you die, you just may end up being remembered as a pop-culture icon.”

Many agreed with me, but more than a few of my readers were appalled by my words.

“The woman just died and it seems a bit disrespectful and perhaps even tacky to speak ill of her,” wrote Stacey.

“I find this post to be in extremely poor taste,” agreed Tim. “I have to ask myself: Would I want people speaking so disrespectfully of a recently deceased relative of mine just because he or she lived a less-than-virtuous life in the public eye?”

At the time, I couldn’t believe that the simple act of dying turned seemingly intelligent people into Anna Nicole groupies. Since then, though, I’ve realized that our reverence for the dead has less to do with who they were and how they lived, and more to do with our own fears.

As a society, we’ve conveniently pushed death off to a dark corner. We busy ourselves with working and traveling and falling in love and having kids and collecting lots and lots of stuff. We convince ourselves that death will come knocking only when we’re old and decrepit and tired of living, anyway.

But when someone among us dies young, we’re reminded that we don’t really have control, after all. And when that someone is a celebrity, a person whose fame and fortune are supposed to protect them from all harm, we can’t help but freak out a little.

In other words, I may be obsessively reading each and every news report about the murder of Tennessee’s most beloved Titan, but if I’m honest I have to admit that it’s not really about Steve McNair. I didn’t even know him.

It’s about me.

And so I have a little more sympathy now for the tears from Titans fans, the glut of Michael Jackson memorials and the tributes to Anna Nicole Smith that still pop up from time to time.

Because if I can overlook the sins of the recently departed, then hopefully when and if I kick the bucket (I am still hoping that researchers will find a cure for death), my neighbors will grace me with a few decent sound bites, too. I’m thinking of phrases like “She was a paragon of virtue,” and “She had a creative talent worthy of the Pulitzer Prize”…. But of course, I’ll leave that up to you.

Read more of Lindsay’s columns at www.suburbanturmoil.com

17 Comments on this post:

By: Kylie on 7/16/09 at 10:39

This was a great article, very interesting in how we deal with death.

Since I started reading blogs, mostly I read about babies and children since that is the place I'm in in life right now. (having babies and hoping for more babies!) I can make myself crazy though reading about everything that can go wrong- all the horrible things that can happen to babies and families. It has actually skewed my thinking that these tragedies happen all the time and are the norm. I have to force myself to stop reading at time. To care, to pray, yes but to stop forcing myself to read such tragedy that does not directly affect my family. I have to remember that it is still more likely to get pregnant, have a healthy pregnancy and have a healthy baby than to not! It has however made me even more thankful for my dear babies :). But yes, to answer your question, I think far more about death, especially infant mortality, than I ever did before blog reading.

By: rubberbacon on 7/16/09 at 11:40

I agree with the above in that I notice blogs about infant death far more then before I had children and yes I think of death more recently but I think that comes from being a mom and traveling frequently. Given the time I'd love to write final letters to my loved ones and make a video for my daughter of all the things she must know and in the event my husband and I depart together a manual for her caretakers on our preference for her education and religion. Guess I've given this a bit of thought.

http://sprocketswife.blogspot.com/

By: ClassyFabSarah on 7/16/09 at 11:58

Amen!!

I so agree with you on this one. When we think about someone's death, celebrities or otherwise, we can't help but think about how it would be if we were in their shoes. I think it's just a natural human reaction. I too think (to myself) that we may be idolizing these celebrities for their un-timely deaths, rather than for how they lived their tumultuous lives.

Sarah
http://inmyblondelife.blogspot.com/

By: lori123 on 7/16/09 at 12:17

I hate when someone dies and all the "church" folk feel the need to remind everyone how sad their sins were. I hope one day our mind can really wrap around the compassion God intended for all of us to live in. Blog land for me has connected me more to the sadness in others struggles.

http://whateverloribehr.blogspot.com/

By: mandyhornbuckle on 7/16/09 at 1:16

I think I agree more with your comments in the Anna Nicole post than this one. Actually, I agree with this one too about the mortality part, but I still don't think that's an excuse to honor somebody who has lived repulsively.

http://jackandmandy.blogspot.com

By: Steph. on 7/16/09 at 2:06

Hey, congrats on your quote in the Newsweek article! I just read that this morning.

I completely agree with you about the ridiculous level with which society chooses to honor celebs after passing. My husband was a huge McNair fan, starting back when he first came to Tennessee (we're former Oilers fans and followed team to your neck of the woods!). But, to hear how he died and that he had a wife and kids and was dating this 20 yr old, well it just goes to show you don't know these people and what kind of morals they have.

Jackson's memorial was ridiculous, but no surprise since everything he always did was overblown. I do feel badly for his kids, but do we need to make him into a saint? The man had a huge prescription drug problem and lives a bizarre life under any standards!

By: deckerllj on 7/16/09 at 4:26

Great article and, as always, great writing. I've acutally been talking to my friends lately about how much sad, crazy stuff is goin on! Not just the celebrity stuff but local stuff. Stuff a little too close to home. I've definitely noticed more, in the blog world, about children meeting their fate to soon and it weighs heavy on my mind alot! It's hard to read it and feel their grief and then go about my day. Makes me sooo grateful to have a healthy family. As far as the recent celebrity deaths goes, I'll admit, I was quick to judge their lives...until I heard the preacher at McNair's funeral say, "Let He who has no sin cast the first stone." And their it is...no one is perfect.

Lindsay
http://deckerdayz.blogspot.com/

By: LegallyBlonde on 7/16/09 at 4:45

“She had a creative talent worthy of the Pulitzer Prize”….

I love it! and to a certain extent I share your thoughts... while I feel some celebrities should be remembered for the "great things" I agree that we should not sensationalize someone that we also felt compelled to crucify for several years prior.

But... in all situations it's not our job to judge - lets honor and respect them in their deaths and puh lease move on... We'll be hearing about Michael Jackson's death for many many more months....

love your column!

By: EddieA on 7/16/09 at 5:39

Good article. Philosophers Plato and Aristotle, 350 BC and 360 BC, theorized and guessed DNA. They theorized parents passed physical characteristics to their offspring. In addition to hair color, eyes color, skin color and other physical traits, they also theorized that memories, genetic consciousness, was also passed. In animals, this is called instinct and answers the question of "How a bird knows to build a nest when the bird has never been taught how to build a nest".

Plato theorized that, at our death, it was possible to access these memories as a series of dreams. This is called Plato's Dream. In his theory, a person could not tell when life ended and death began.

The 2005 novel, 'Plato's Dream' is a fictional story of genetic consciousness. If you believe Plato and Aristotle, it is possible everyone reading this opinion is dead. A distant relative has just died and they are accessing the memories of the person who lived on July 16, 2009.

By: thebloggingmum on 7/16/09 at 6:32

It's totally one of my pet peeves. I hate that someone who was so annoying in real life, is all of the sudden some sort of saint because they've died. This happened with a close friend of mine a few years back- I loved her so much, but the truth was that her life was a disaster and her death was needlessly brought on by her own choices. However, instead of simply mourning that she had passed, or the tragedy of her life, it was turned into a "celebration" of her "missionary" work. Missionary work? She went on ONE mission trip in high school, and since then had drank herself to death.

I'm sad she's gone. Even more sad she was turned into something she wasn't, and never wanted to be.

~Melanie
http://thebloggingmum.blogspot.com

By: EddieA on 7/16/09 at 6:50

To further explain the thory of life and death of philosophers Plato and Aristotle, the combined consciousness of the male is passed at conception and the combined conciousness of the female is passed during development. Only those memories, prior to birth, are passed. If a person lived twenty years beyond the birth of the child, those memories are not present as they are yet to occur.

The offspring is born with genetic memories of the natural parents, grand parents and distant past relatives. This combined consciousnes can go backward hundreds or thousands of years. It is possible some, or not all, of the consciousness is passed, or it it is, it may be defective.

It is possible to access these memories at death. The year may not be 2009 but 2040. A distant relative has just died and tapped into the memories of a relative that lived in the year 2009.

The person who is dead does not know they are dead. In Plato's theory there is no death. He theorized, in waking reality, that life may be nothing more than a dream to which we are yet to awaken. In Plato's Dream a person can not tell what life is and death is - because there is no difference.

By: comagirl on 7/16/09 at 7:58

I agree. I love that when a young person dies in NY, he or she is always an honor student who went to church every Sunday.

The kid could have been killed at 2am on a school night in a drug deal gone bad, but he was "a good kid who always helped old ladies with their groceries"

By: rachael on 7/17/09 at 8:16

I love this post and actually have never thought about how death is publically discussed like this before. Your Subruban Turmoil blog asked if the internet and media vehicles changed the way people view death and I think it absolutely has. We hear about death all the time, far more than generations before us. Whether it's deadly accidents featured on the Today Show, celebrity overdoses or even the discussions about health related diseases as it pertains to death. It makes me wonder how much more our children will know...

check out my blog here: www.orangecabbage.com

Rachael

By: sidneyames on 7/17/09 at 3:15

I loved this post also; it was well-written. When I die, I plan to send out invitatons to a "gone away" party and hope both my friends show up. Oh yeah, and if my husband and dogs are still alive, they can come also.

By: chainsofyesterday on 7/18/09 at 7:03

I think the oversaturation is getting to be a bit much - feels like I'm almost numb to hearing the news of the latest celebrity death now. It seems like the top article on Google News is about so and so's death every other day. And it doesn't stop once they've died - it goes on and on and on, dissecting every aspect of their life, their legacy, their death.
It's sad when anyone dies. Period. But I didn't know Michael Jackson, or Anna Nicole Smith, or Farrah Fawcett... or even Walter Cronkite. Yes, I knew "of" them... but their deaths, while saddening, didn't affect my day to day life.
I just wonder what all this death coverage is doing to us emotionally, whether it's hardening us, whether it will leave us feeling the death of someone close to us less intensely?
Kay @ chainsofyesterday

By: LindsayFerrier on 7/18/09 at 9:10

I would like to see live coverage of Walter Cronkite's memorial service. Now THAT I would watch.

By: lexgrace on 7/21/09 at 11:18

Well said!! I have always thought it a bit odd how society romanticizes death and reveres those that have passed just because we are afraid of what death actually means. I think we are all a little afraid of the unknown and the finality of death. Not that I want people to only remember the bad things about me when I’m gone, but there’s a big difference in sharing a few pleasant memories and making someone a saint just because they’re dead. As for my thoughts on my own death? Scary! I want to live a long full life before I die, and I have somehow convinced myself that I will. Lol But seriously, with all the news stories and blogs about dying children, mothers, fathers, etc I feel more pressure to face facts—I could die today and I have no control over it. That scares the shit out of me.