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