Death And All His Friends


In what will no doubt be weeks of upcoming news coverage, tributes, memorials and TV specials chronicling the life and death of Michael Jackson, the point will likely be made that Michael Jackson died the same day as Farrah Fawcett and just two days after Ed McMahon. “We can’t forget Farrah and Ed,” people will say. But invariably, the immense, wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson will overshadow the other two, and history will forget that these three important twentieth century icons died in the same city in the same few days in June.

This sort of thing happens all the time—one famous person’s death being overshadowed by someone more famous. Remember when Mother Teresa died? Probably not, because she died 6 days after Princess Diana died, while the world was totally preoccupied with the fanfare and memorials for Diana, who was the much bigger “star.”

And one of the biggest celebrity deaths for anyone who was alive at that point in history was certainly the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy died, just like people probably remember where they were when Princess Diana died and will likely recall where they were today, when the King of Pop died. But few people remember that the day Kennedy died—November 22, 1963—was also the day that C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died, important British authors who quietly passed into history as page two news behind the front page coverage of the dead American president.

Is it unfair? Can spotlights be stolen even in death? Why is one person’s death more “newsworthy” than anyone else’s?

As I’ve been thinking of death today, I’ve thought a lot about these questions. Michael Jackson was the most famous person in the world, but is his death more tragic than the death of, say, the homeless person who died just down the street earlier in the day? Is Farrah Fawcett’s death more tragic than that of Neda, the girl whose violent death in Iran we all saw on YouTube earlier this week? Is Ed McMahon’s death more significant than the death of my grandfather? For me, the answer is clear. Grandpa’s death is more significant. But aside from personal feelings or subjective emotions, are some lives more important or valuable than others?

What is the value of any given life as compared to any other life? Should the world mourn more for the death of a superstar than for an average Joe? I don’t really think so. A life is a life. It’s a precious, miraculous thing, and every death is a horrible, tragic occurrence.

A friend of mine has been mourning the sudden, unexpected death of a close friend who died earlier this week. I didn’t know the person who died, but I know my friend and I mourn alongside him. Every death is harder to deal with for those closest to the dead, but every life extinguished is—in the end—equally tragic. My friend’s friend, the people on the train in Washington D.C., the faces dotting the obituary newspapers today, and every other person in the world who this very minute is taking their last breath.

It’s all tragic.

Said C.S. Lewis, who always recognized the “more than this world” miracle of life: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

7 responses to “Death And All His Friends

  1. Great post Brett. Thanks for writing down what I was feeling all day.

  2. I was thinking that every time a superstar like MJ dies (and of course, there’s no superstar like MJ), it signals the death of an era of sorts and lends a new cast to all his or her art.
    My high school nickname was “Betis,” which was sometimes sung to the tune of “Beat It”…this won’t happen again without some sadness about Michael Jackson’s death…so in a sense, a tiny part of my youthful joy is taken away with him. And now the same is true for the moonwalk, “Thriller,” and dozens of other formerly “innocent” cultural references for millions (billions?) of people.

  3. It’s hit me too that MJ’s death, as tragic as it is, has no impact on the people close to Farrah or Ed. MJ’s passing, although they may feel the loss, put in perspective has little bearing on their current situation.

    What I find most saddening, is any hope the families of Farrah and Ed may have had that the US/World would morn with them, is now gone…and that’s got to be a bit upsetting.

    I really appreciate your article.

  4. is his death more tragic than the death of, say, the homeless person who died just down the street earlier in the day? Is Farrah Fawcett’s death more tragic than that of Neda, the girl whose violent death in Iran we all saw on YouTube earlier this week?

    I’m not sure that news stories are ranked by level of tragedy. In terms of raw numbers, more viewers care that Michael Jackson died than Ed McMahon, and the same goes for JFK & CSL. The news is a business, and it’s good business to spend more time on the subject that will attract the greatest number of viewers.

    I’m not dismissing that events like this lead to considering the merits and priorities and relative levels of significance that we attach to strangers, but I don’t think that framing it this way– that television coverage has any bearing on intrinsic or extrinsic value– is fruitful.

  5. Death plays even, it’s just the living that don’t.

  6. Hi nice website.

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  7. To me, it was very strange that all the folks who died were TV icons in some way. Ed McMahon, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Mays. They were all truly iconic of something or other and well-known in their fields.

    When Mother Theresa and Lady Di died, they were also iconic too. But not as celebrities, more as people who wanted to help the suffering folks in the world.

    Huxley, C S Lewis, and JFK were icons in the same group as well. They each defined a way of dealing with the world: politically, theologically, philosophically.

    I could be stretching things to see all this order in what seems like sudden unconnected deaths but I can’t help but see order. Even if none exists, it certainly makes me fear ever becoming iconic.

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