Rest in Peace: Saying Goodbye to Celebs

About two and a half million people died in the U.S. last year, and some of them were celebrities. Many of the highlights at last night’s Grammy Awards were tributes to musicians we lost in 2015. The death of a well-known person has always been a cultural event, but in recent times the internet has allowed people to get in on the action in whole new way.

How genuine are the displays of mourning we see on Facebook when a celebrity dies? How sincere is the reverence for the art they left behind?

I remember when Princess Diana was killed, and my parents remember the Kennedy assassination. Both of these events shook the world, and even for people who have no personal connection to either of these incidents or the people involved, remembering them somehow feels like we were there. The mere fact that we existed in the world at the moment that these individuals met their tragic ends grounds us in history.

Even before the digital age, mourning celebrities was something everyone could join in on. Placing candles and flowers, watching the news coverage of tributes to the deceased from around the world – the sense of belonging and community can be compelling. Often the death in question can bring serious issues back into the spotlight. Suicide and depression, AIDS, and drug addiction are some common issues that suddenly become more pressing when they result in a celebrity death. But is this phenomenon simply driving clicks, or is there some way it can help regular people? The potential for change seems to be there, and yet the newsworthiness of any one death has a shelf life.

When a celebrity dies, everyone on Facebook suddenly appears to be intimately connected with the music and films of the deceased celebrity as soon as news of their passing spreads. A few people share a more profound memory or a deeper knowledge of that person’s career, but for the most part it’s echoes of “R.I.P. David Bowie,” perhaps with a link to The Man Who Sold the World or a clip from Labyrinth.

There’s no question that Labyrinth was playing on a loop in the background throughout my childhood. I think that when the creator of culturally important art passes away, it becomes meaningful to people who experienced that era, even if they weren’t particularly fans of that artist. David Bowie’s death is a reminder that the 70’s and 80’s are most definitely over, and that the people who were in their prime during those decades are over the hill. Younger people can easily be swept up in nostalgia, and they have an opportunity to show off their knowledge of classic rock.

The tribute performances at the Grammy’s, particularly Lady Gaga’s tribute to David Bowie, were all about taking that sense of nostalgia and making it feel fresh for a new generation. Everyone – whether they’re old enough to remember or not – can unite in the gratitude that this music is with us and the sadness at the loss of a great talent.

Celebrities aging can have a similar effect. Like seeing images of Macaulay Culkin today when you remember him so vividly in Home Alone. Or when my dad went to see the (remaining) Mamas and the Papas perform and noted how old they looked. It’s a reminder that time is passing and your present is rapidly becoming history.