Celebrity Passings and the Memento Mori

Jill Maria MurdyJill Maria Murdy
Director of Liturgy and Music
Saint Frances Cabrini Parish,
West Bend, WI

Since Christmas, I have been involved with seven funerals in the parish where I work. My volunteer choir members and cantors have been out to sing for most of those liturgies. In my profession, death is a constant. Some families have been overwhelmed with grief, others shocked, and others just feeling a sense of grateful relief that their loved one is no longer struggling to live. My own beloved mother has been gone since 1992, and there is probably not a day that goes by when I don’t miss her. Recently I have seen posts of many other friends grieving the loss of a parent, young spouse, nephew, or child, and I have felt the angst with them.

Perhaps this is why I’ve been thinking a lot of all the celebrity deaths that have made the news lately: David Bowie, Glen Frey, Alan Rickman, René Angélil, Dan Haggerty, Natalie Cole, Pat Harrington, and Olympian Bill Johnson just to name a few. Radio playlists and newscasts telling of their life’s work have filled the airwaves, and various organizations have sought to pay tribute in different ways (like the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra who has already announced a program of David Bowie’s music as part of their fall concert lineup).

But why should these deaths shock us? Surely it is a loss when each of these musicians or actors leaves us, but what about the countless other obituaries printed each day? Don’t we mourn the teachers, the scientists? The factory workers, the grandmothers and grandfathers? Are not their legacies as rich and important to us all?

In his Instruments of Good Works, St. Benedict wisely told his monks to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.” This is something our society is not very good at: the health and fitness industries continue to grow, while others spend money on Botox, cosmetics, plastic surgery, whatever will “keep us young.” Everything we hear focuses on “living the good life,” so when life comes to a screeching halt, we are often devastated, even if the life was that of a celebrity whom we have never met.

For celebrities are those whom we have galvanized with Teflon, those who are “larger than life,” and it is unnerving for us to learn that they, too, suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, or a stroke. Perhaps the reason their deaths resonate with us is because they bring “death before our eyes daily.” If these seemingly untouchable celebrities are no longer young, are in fact dying, it is a sign that we too are perhaps middle aged, a reminder that this will be us someday, that everyone will eventually face death. This begs the question: are we mourning the loss of these creative artists and their gifts and talents, or are we mourning our own lost youth and inevitable death?

As Bowie himself sang in “Changes”:

Strange fascination, fascinating me
Changes are taking the pace
I’m going through
Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Oh, look out you rock ‘n rollers
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and face the strange)
Ch-ch-changes
Pretty soon now you’re gonna get older
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time
I said that time may change me
But I can’t trace time.

Or, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
What profit have we from all the toil
which we toil at under the sun?
One generation departs and another generation comes,
but the world forever stays.

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