Thursday, 19 March 2009

Death and disinformation

A childhood friend has just died prematurely. I'm not going to name them here but they were pretty famous. And famously pretty.

Being a global public figure their death was widely reported in news websites on which the public are invited to comment. And comment they have, in the thousands, expressing their admiration for the deceased, sharing their sense of loss, offering their consolation to the families. Why do they do this for someone they never met and didn't know?

Vicarious grief is a not a new phenomenon. When Rudolph Valentino died, several young women committed suicide. What has changed is the enabling power of the Internet. Sometimes a little power is a dangerous thing. Every time a celebrity dies, every website with an obituary that permits it is inundated with thousands of postings of virtual keening for the departed.

Now I hadn't seen my friend for over thirty years, we parted ways socially when I went to boarding school but I would often run into their mother who was stratospherically famous herself who always remembered me. Once even knocking on my door because they'd locked themselves out of their house and because of their security system and their political activism, they could not break into their own house without setting off a major police alert.

I digress but this qualification is necessary to say that I knew this deceased person and their family and I have read a lot of tripe in the tributes by well qualified people in their profession and by their fans on these websites.

I feel an urge to correct them but I suspect somewhere my motivation is my own ego and vicarious grief as well, that I so despise, so I shall let this pass but what confounds me with all the pointless posting of "great shame", "my sympathy to the family" etc. is that it drowns out any possibility of comment or correction of the facts.

Their death reopens a long running debate about wearing of safety helmets and personal responsibility and is a salutary lesson in first aid protocols which has been drowned in this sea of vicarious grief.

They had their faults and their secrets and we mustn't speak ill of the dead but when I am witnessing the embalming of myth, I feel it is necessary to put right certain errors when I see them before they are forever set in amber.

Perhaps news websites should filter condolences and comments on their obituaries to condolence books so those still in search of the truth can find it.

I shall grieve that a person I shared a part of my childhood with, who always showed me and my family kindness and so is remembered with affection, has gone. A witness to my own history has died and that is my only loss. And, as a witness to theirs, I'd like to honour them by ensuring that the truth is known.


  1. Hi Nat.
    I am curious about your use of the plural ("they", "them" etc) in this blog.
    Was it to avoid using "his/her"? But from the content it seems clear that it was about one person, probably female.

    David Morris

  2. David,

    Your are correct, I didn't want to give the name of the person involved but it is about a childhood playmate who grew up to be a very famous person but it really doesn't matter to my point who they are.