The Over-Identification with the Death of Celebrities

Muhammad Ali

USA. Chicago 1966. Muhammad Ali, boxing world heavy weight champion showing off his right fist. © Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

With the very recent passing of boxing champion Muhammad Ali, and not long before, the sudden passing of the musician/visionary Prince, the collective has been abuzz with sorrowful mourning over “great” celebrities who have died.

To be totally honest, I don’t know much about Ali, except for the very basics.  And while I did enjoy a few Prince songs, I was not an avid fan.  Though, in January of this year, a celebrity that I did greatly enjoy died — and that was David Bowie.  When news of his passing hit the internet, I found myself momentarily shocked and even saddened… but then I snapped back to reality.  A reality in which all of Bowie’s work could still be enjoyed.  I still have the music I so loved, and I can still watch the handful of movies he starred in that I really like.

In essence, I don’t identify with the personal tragedy of his loss of life — because who he was, as an everyday human, wasn’t a part of my personal reality.  His art was.  The art remains (a great thing about art, eh?).  And I am thankful for that.

What I’m seeing the trend becoming when a “great” dies (what is great anyway?) is this widespread over-identification with the personal tragedy of their death.  There were several people who legitimately mourned, as they would mourn if a close personal friend died, when Prince passed.  I’ve seen tributes and long diatribes about how much he would be missed, and how hard it was hitting those people, personally.  A quick scan across social media and online news outlets confirms that this is now the rule, and not the exception, in how people react to celebrity deaths.

The psychological implications, on a mass scale, are a touch concerning.  Yes, people like to identify with greatness.  When that greatness, which is subjectively defined by requirements of the society at large by the way, passes away and is gone, individuals can easily substitute those lost lives in for their own personal tragedies — that have either gone denied, repressed, or fragmented; spread across and divied up amongst different aspects of their psyche.  So when that useful mass tragedy occurs (in these instances, celebrity deaths), they can disperse the energies that have been long pent up inside of them and moreover, they have a reason to.  All the while, unaware that reason is reason enough and that their own personal lives should matter more to them than a person they never knew and never will know.

I believe it’s indicative of a mass ill in our society that we don’t know what it means to connect with our own tragedies.  I’m certainly not denying the significance or gravity of David Bowie dying… to his wife… or immediate family, or close friends.  A single tribute at most, to his art, should have served as ritual enough to commemorate his life as a talented musician.  Same with Prince.  And same with Ali.  Generally, these are known as funerals or memorials.  And while that is clearly not enough for the public, I would dare say let us now ask the question of why.

Besides, what is death?  I don’t mean this particular post to venture into the esoteric and symbolic questions of life and death, except to suggest that people begin to wonder… does it have more or less impact for a celebrated talent to die if they leave behind all manner of mementos of their time here, available for mass consumption on the whim of any person in the developed world?  What about the children the world over who die in deplorable conditions, every other minute?  What is left behind of them?  What is the value of a life?  Is gross over-identification with the deaths of celebrities symptomatic of belief systems built upon lies?  Built upon, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others?”

It’s time to ask these questions.  It’s time to face our own pains and losses with the reverence and attention they deserve.  And it may even be time to assess whether greatness is somewhere out there, or if it’s been right here all along.