….but we are all fabulous.

The fascination with famous and not-so-famous deaths

I find myself fascinated by the deaths of famous people, particularly when they are through suicide, harmful behaviours such as drug or alcohol abuse or disease such as cancer. This fascination surfaced again recently with L’Wren Scott – I had heard of her vaguely, but knew nothing about her, certainly not enough to justify the feeling of sadness when I heard of her death. Eva Wiseman in The Observer this week [link not currently available] asks why we are affected by celebrity deaths – why we feel sad even though we don’t know the individual concerned. This is something I have been thinking about myself very recently, but one aspect she didn’t consider is that we are predominantly affected by untimely celebrity deaths – she mentioned Princess Diana, L’Wren Scott, Philip Hoffman and Corey Monteith for example, but didn’t mention Shirley Temple or Sir David Frost, both of whom died later in life.


Death and Fire by Paul Klee (1940)

I have tried to understand the effect such deaths have on me – horror, fascination, sadness. I have worried that I am just being voyeuristic or indulging ‘guilty-pleasure’ tabloid –style leanings. But I think that although there may be an element of those things, two main reasons exist:

  1. We try to discover the reasons why in order to reassure ourselves that the same thing is unlikely to happen to us. For me at least, when the person concerned is closer in age to me, I pay more attention to the details as if somehow I can reassure myself that their fate won’t befall me or learn lessons to avoid it. This may well explain the surge in young women going for cervical smear tests following the death of Jade Goody in 2009, known as “The Jade Goody Effect”. The realisation that her death from cervical cancer might have been preventable spurred young women, an age group previously showing a decline in attending for smears, to make an appointment*.

*Marlow, L. A., Sangha, A., Patnick, J., & Waller, J. (2012). The Jade Goody Effect: whose cervical screening decisions were influenced by her story? Journal of Medical Screening19(4), 184-188.

  1. We actually get a glimpse of death and pore over it to see what we can glean about it – in our society we hide death away, despite the fact that it will happen to all of us. A friend recently pointed out that it is only in recent decades and only in first world countries that death has become so hidden – in previous generations and still in many countries, children died from childhood diseases, men died at war, women died in childbirth and so on. Everyone would have known people who had died prematurely. Today, except for an unfortunate minority, most of us will die in old age, often in hospital or hidden away in a home. As a result, we have become removed from this natural and inevitable phenomenon. A celebrity death gives us the opportunity to observe death, albeit second hand. An opportunity to ponder it and how we might deal with it.

Perhaps as a result of the greater distance most of us have from death as well as the secularisation of society, we also have lost some of the rituals associated with death – wearing black armbands, keeping a vigil over the body – which make death more visible to us and the people around us. I also envy those societies which wear bright clothes and celebrate the loved one’s life rather than wearing black and focussing on the fact they are gone.

A few days after the news broke about L’Wren Scott, these musings took a more personal turn when I learned of the suicide of a former student of mine, N. I had worked closely with this student a few years ago but was unprepared for how much his death upset me and how much that upset lingered. That sense of finality really hit me – there would be no changing the outcome for N – no unsaying said things, undoing done things or improving the future. I was fortunate enough to attend his funeral. I am not religious and had questioned whether the funeral would be worth attending from a personal perspective, other than to show support for his family. In the end however, I was surprised that afterwards I felt a sense of peace and calm that I had not had since I had heard of his death. This was, I think, less from the religious nature of the funeral, which made me determined to research humanist alternatives, but rather from everyone coming together who had loved or known N and from the sense of occasion – the feeling of shared inevitability for all of us, famous or not-so-famous, of death.


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This entry was posted on March 30, 2014 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , .
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