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.”