Should we sanctify the famous once they’re dead?

Jack May 5 May 2014

In recent years, the death of international celebrities has increasingly made headlines in newspapers, been trending on Twitter, and led the broadcast news to an extent that would previously have been unusual. The coverage of and reaction to these deaths has become far more commonplace. When this is combined with our open-forum techno-world, in which everybody’s opinion is rendered relevant by a hashtag and news comment is plucked from the lower echelons of the internet, it’s easy to see how discussing the legacies of the departed has become one of daily life’s standard media frenzies.

Yet what I’ve often found interesting to witness is the way in which these legacies often become stripped of all their colour and intrigue by this frenzy. Celebrities who are the butt of everyone’s jokes can suddenly become temporary saints overnight by a newspaper headline, and we shouldn’t take it as given. Is it right for us to completely change the way we understand, think and talk about these famous individuals in an instant, because of the seemingly simple fact of their death?

Fundamentally, the old principle of de mortuis nil nisi bonum (‘of the dead, nothing unless good’) stands firm. Obviously. You wouldn’t be happy if someone started ruthlessly criticising your grandmother the day after she died, or if everyone made jokes about a friend of yours who’d just taken their own life. You’d be utterly right to be offended, hurt, and completely outraged. However, you’d also feel a little put-out if everyone started calling your best friend a ‘saint’ or a ‘flawlessly good human being’ the day after their death. Neither would you want your parents to silence you when trying to relay a particularly good anecdote about that time at dinner when your grandmother dribbled some of her roast dinner down herself because she hadn’t put her false teeth in properly. It would miss the point. It wouldn’t be fair, or balanced.

It’s this balance that we find most challenging – and the majority of prominent examples from recent years show a striking lack of it. I certainly remember Michael Jackson’s potentially paedophilic tendencies being a source of much break time talk at school. We were young, certainly, but we weren’t entirely stupid – most of us knew his music, enjoyed it. We knew, in a very juvenile way, to strike the balance between acknowledging the extraordinary and possibly unparalleled talent that he had, and recognising the potential question marks and black spots that lingered over his arguably rather troubled character. Similarly, Amy Winehouse and her miraculous beehive also loomed large in our celebrity-related ‘banter’, but I certainly grew up to love and appreciate the sound of her music and the passion behind her lyrics. It was thus unsettling for this cloud of censorship to descend over our conversations when they died. It didn’t seem natural.

This can, of course, be taken in completely the opposite direction, most memorably in the case of Jimmy Saville. Following his death, accusation after accusation came to light, exposing his alleged sexual misconduct and paedophilic activities throughout his decade-spanning career for the BBC (amongst others). I will make it absolutely clear, firstly, that such types of abuse are never condonable, and should never be allowed to slide. Ever. Having said this, I am sure that I am not the only one who felt profoundly uncomfortable as we went into the third, fourth, fifth, even sixth consecutive month of these stories dominating the headlines. There is an important principle to be upheld in the so-called ‘right of reply’ – I could not feel comfortable with the ceaseless, apparently tireless slandering of his character and dismantling of his name and reputation whilst he, as a dead man, had no way to attempt to answer to any of the allegations that were brought against him. The caricature of perversion and depravity that we now know, this ‘Saville Bogeyman’, is one that has thrived in the frenzied defamation that followed his death. 

The solution, then, is obviously not simply to happily slander the names of the dead once they pass beyond the veil, but to have the confidence to engage comprehensively with all aspects of their life in a balanced manner; to consider their misgivings and unflattering characteristics. It may even be that one step in this direction would be for a more positive portrayal of celebrities (and indeed the world in general) whilst they live amongst us. There might not then be such an apparent heavy weight of media and public guilt leading to the complete levelling of legacy that we find today. I fear we may be asking too much.

Fundamentally the question is what the business of celebrity really means for us. The fact is that to clear the famous of all charges once they’re dead fundamentally misses the point of ‘celebrity’. Celebrity exists not just to hold up those who are deemed ‘better’ or ‘more talented’, but to provide a mirror of faults for the millions of ordinary people who subscribe to their fame. Celebrity without human error is not a useful celebrity at all; the whole point of celebrity, and what keeps the barrage of tabloid papers thriving is that the famous, like us, are utterly and accountably human. A plain canvas isn’t worth anything – it’s the textures and colours that make it interesting.