Rest in Fame
A Conversation About Celebrity Death
with RULA AL-NASRAWI & LAURA SABA
Where do famous people go when they die? We assume that in the supposed afterlife, there will not be a roped off VIP section, that their souls will be floating around with yours and mine. Do their spirits wander recording studio hallways or abandoned movie sets? Do they haunt old lovers, managers and drug dealers—pulling at their hair, taking bites out of their food, watching them sleep. I don't know. As far as I know, when an icon is gone, they, like anyone else, ceases to exist. We are only left with what we were given to begin with, an image, an idea of who these people were. And yet their deaths are often harder to stomach than those that we actually knew. Amy Winehouse died almost five years to the day, but I couldn't tell you why it hurt almost as much when my grandmother died so many years before that. We are, whether we chose to be or not, haunted by these ghosts every day. When a song comes on the radio or when we choose to watch their last movie. These people who spent their lives under a microscope are only essentially free when they die. But how we process that is up for debate.
I spoke with death doula Laura Saba on celebrity culture, the passing of an iconic figure, and what it means to publicly grieve on social media. Saba's job is to help people come to terms with death, to tie all loose ends, and to find the greater meaning in life before it ends. I called her right after Prince died, and the conversation has continued ever since.
Laura: I have some ideas about why the loss of these celebrities are hitting us so hard. And why it feels like it’s accelerating. First of all, we’re more connected because of the internet and social media. You had Frank Sinatra and you had The Beatles, and they were very popular. But we didn’t have 24/7 information like we do now. You might be a Beatles fan and talk about them all the time but you only saw them on TV once in a while or heard them do a radio interview. Right now every day you’re hearing and seeing clips of people, you’re able to re-watch movies. Before the late 80s you didn’t even have VCRs so you couldn’t even watch reruns. And now in modern times, celebrities have constantly been in our lives. I think that because of that we feel more personally related to them; they feel almost like family to us. They’re just so much more accessible and we’re reading so much more about their personal lives. You used to have to wait for that big Rolling Stone article, but now every day you’re learning about something new the celebrity did.
A lot of times when an iconic figure dies, it makes you think of your own mortality. When these great powerful forces just die suddenly or tragically, it shakes up your world in a different way.
Why do you love the icons that you love? Because they have spoken to something in you. They touched something in you that helps you understand yourself better, and when they go it’s really shocking to the system.
And how astonishing that these people like Prince and Bowie that are at the height of success and yet they’re as fallible as us. In our culture as long as we keep striving and trying to be more successful there’s the hope that we can beat the odds of anything, maybe in our subconscious death itself.
R: Bowie and Prince are both good examples of having this non human element to their entire stage persona that probably adds to that denial. It’s Bowie, it’s Ziggy Stardust, he’s not even a person he ‘s this alien being that just lives on forever. I see those two in a different way, their trajectory and their careers are really different than say, Whitney Houston or Amy Winehouse where we were just watching them self destruct.
L: Those two were self destructing before our eyes but Prince and Bowie were reinventing themselves. When you can constantly invent yourself like that you give this projection of invincibility.
I feel like we take these people for granted.
L: There’s a wake up call like you used to be able to flip on the radio and they’re always there and now they’re not. Prince left enough music in that vault for a lifetime (laughs) but it’s still not the same.
There’s always unfinished work with creatives as well.
L: Exactly. I’ve had a lot of people say to me that they can’t believe Bowie's dead. In Black Star he talks a lot about rebirth and he was notorious for saying he was going to drop out of culture and society, and so people were saying that they think he’s making a comeback later but he’s just dropping out right now and I’m like that’s just denial.
Can you imagine? That would literally be the worst prank of all time.
L: A lot of people will often feel guilty because they cried more when their favorite celebrity died than when some of their own relatives died. We are raised in a culture where we expect people to do this clean and quick grieving. Someone dies and you’re back at work within a couple of days and everything’s back to normal. We don’t really talk about death in our culture but it’s all around us.
When a celebrity dies it’s so shocking that it’s almost as if our body says ‘you know what, you can cry over this.’ And I think we’re not just crying about the loss of the celebrity but about the losses we didn’t get over. Social media has been great for the shared experience of grief, everybody’s talking and you can come together and it’s like everybody can have a collective experience of letting their unexplored grief out.
As soon as an icon's death is confirmed, my entire Facebook feed blows up with posts of people sharing their own personal experiences. People are just looking for any connection to these icons and finding reason to share their stories or thoughts on social media.
L: I do wonder though if that makes the grief bigger or deeper? On one hand it's great to share and explore it. But picture the 70s: somebody dies, you might see it on the news and maybe the radio station will play an album side. But beyond that, you didn't have this all day grieving kind of thing. I think in some ways, yes we can now go deeper into our grief, we're sharing about it all day long. I almost wonder if we'd go deeper into grief than we might if we weren't sitting in front of Facebook seeing all the stories and sharing all of the articles though.
Yeah, while it could be good to share and while the internet does provide this infinite platform to share these things, with the news cycle the speed at which things move is insane. Prince died on a Thursday, and by Saturday, Beyonce dropped her new visual album and then 90 percent of the Prince stories disappeared and it was all about Beyonce. I would be reading some of these Beyonce/ Lemonade pieces that were like 'Beyonce helped us grieve Prince by producing such a wonderful album' and I was like that is so intense, I mean the man had JUST died. But also side note, I did find it crazy that Beyonce happened to make a Prince reference on her 'Don't Hurt Yourself' track when she says'when you play me, you play yourself.' It was a weird full circle moment.
L: And that was done a while ago, way before he died right?
Yeah and people were trying to make connections as they were reviewing the album, one being that years ago, Prince told Beyonce that she would be a much better artist if she learned to play the piano, and sure enough you see her playing the piano on the 'Sandcastles' track on her visual album.
L: If you didn't have Facebook or other social media platforms, do you think you would experience all of this differently?
I think so. For example, with something like the JFK assassination, long before Facebook or anything like that, the only things we had were newspaper articles and then video footage of the actual assassination. It's the only real thing we as the public had in relation to this death. It feels like the same type of grief but it's being processed in a completely different way at completely different speeds.
L: I'm thinking about Princess Di when she died because you didn't have social media then but the whole world seemed to grieve for her. And we had a lot more footage of the last few weeks of her life with photographs and video footage of her being chased in the car. And we had a lot more media by the time she died, so you look at that contrast with JFK. I do think that increased media was starting to pick up already by the time Princess Diana was killed and then by the time Michael Jackson died, forget about it.
MJ's death was the worst for me. I was devastated.
L: In terms of human history the deaths you would feel the most were the people who lived in your home, because you're used to having breakfast with this person every day and now you're having breakfast alone, or you're used to picking them up and driving them to school each day and now you're not. Those were the losses that were really hard to get over. Whereas if you had a grandparent that you were really close to, yes you were sad because you knew they were gone, but there's a part of you that feels like they're just away and you're not seeing them. You would feel it more intensely during a time like the holidays when they would normally be there. Now what's happening with celebrities is like every morning you go online and there's another Prince thing in your feed. In a way it's the inverse but same effect of now you're driving to school and not picking up your friend. It's that same kind of regular reminder because every time you go on social media, you're seeing it.
Right, those losses disrupt your every day life.
When I see something about a celebrity who has passed, of course I stop and think about how they're gone but also because I have no real connection to them except for the way their work made me feel, there's still a big separation. Sometimes it feels like these figures are still around just because I've never had the ability to pick up the phone and call any of them.
L: That is something else that's difficult. When somebody creative dies, their work touched something in you and that matters. Prince could make you want to get up and dance and he explored every human emotion possible in his music. It's strange to think that somebody that has touched you so personally was never here in your physical life and now they're gone. It's a surreal experience. You feel like they've touched your soul. Deaths like Amy Winehouse and Whitney, they're heartbreaking but they're so sad because we feel like no matter how much they gave to the world the world couldn't save them from themselves. But then the Robin Williams or the Bowie or the Prince; they were powerful, they were strong, they didn't seem like victims. It's a very different experience. I don't know how to classify Michael Jackson because as powerful as he was, sometimes people can turn into a victim or a criminal too.
That whole thing with MJ was so sad because the public had such varying opinions of MJ. When I was a kid my mom would leave MTV on and I watched all of his videos, so I felt this intense grief when he passed away. I essentially grew up with him . But also the way in which he died, I mean he was addicted to painkillers and wanted to be numb all the time. None of these icons just quietly died in bed at the age of 95. Do you feel it's more powerful that they left suddenly or just that they left altogether? Like if Bowie died of old age 30 years from now, would it still be the same?
L: Bowie is a hard one to consider because he planned the whole album as a gift to his fans that carried messages about his death. It's a little more complicated. But if he hadn't done that and if he just died of old age it would still be sad but I don't think it would be as shocking. These people, it still felt like they were at the height of their career.
And it's like unless you're 99 years old, creatives are never really done creating so there are almost always reports that come out announcing unreleased or unfinished work. Like the Prince vault or MJ's unreleased music.
L: Heath Ledger, did he die before Facebook?
He died after Facebook took off. I was in college when he died. I remember people posting about it but there was definitely a major shift in social media grieving after MJ died.
L: Heath Ledger's death. I remember it being so tragic, I remember it being so shocking and out of the blue, but I think too that Michael Jackson was the shift. That's strange because Heath Ledger definitely impacted people in terms of talent as the others so I wonder what the shift was that caused that.
At this very moment there are a million ways to share information. There's Facebook, there's Twitter, there's Instagram, there's Snapchat, there's just so much. So as of right now, social media and my life are connected every single day. A friend of mine went to a Prince memorial at the Apollo right when he died and recorded a video for her Snapchat story. Snapchat and these platforms that pretty much live stream what you're doing didn't really exist a few years ago. Sometimes posting on social media almost feels like a chore. An icon dies and then every single person takes to social media to share a photo, a video, a personal story. It's a bizarre combination of paying homage and showing respect and this other feeling of needing to post so your followers know where you stand. And that's just the culture right now.
L: Do you think that the process of filming a tribute takes away from experiencing that tribute or changes it?
Yeah a little bit. If I'm at an event and I'm having an incredible time, I don't always think about having my phone out and Snapping everything. I feel so mixed about it, I mean in a weird way it's a personal sacrifice when you want to share an event or a moment with your friends and followers, because by doing that a part of you wasn't really there. So as the follower or outsider, I got to feel like I was there and you being the person posting were not entirely there yourself.
L: So many people tell me that they only see something happen when they themselves watch it later. You're really watching it second hand in a way.
I think it was Anais Nin who said that she writes to live and experience twice because it's only in the revisit of it that she feels like she's done that. I'm wondering if what we're seeing with all of this social media stuff is kind of a second hand grief. It's only through telling these stories on social media we are able to touch the grief that we haven't acknowledged.
An icon dying is a also a reminder that you're growing and getting older and your own life is changing and you are moving closer to death that as well. That's a lot.
L: We deny our own mortality all the time.
Are some people using the internet and social media as a means to sell and capitalize on these deaths? When Aaliyah died, so many places started selling airbrushed t-shirts with her face on it. Now with Muhammed Ali and Prince and all of these other celebrity deaths, there's till merch and music and content to not just access but to be purchased. Where we do we draw the line?
L: When it comes to celebrity deaths, it is harder to know where to draw the line. There are those who take advantage, clearly. But I know that I myself went online and downloaded Bowie and Prince music following their deaths earlier this year. I wanted to reconnect with the memories these songs evoked. And, I also watched Youtube videos of their concerts, ones I had actually paid to attend long ago. Youtube, the accounts which posted that footage, and the advertisers whose ads ran on those videos all benefitted from my own viewing, and that of many other fans. Radio and television tributes, while both honoring and in a way, eulogizing them, also benefitted - there was the direct benefit of ad revenue, and again, the good will built with their listeners.
Some could argue that other celebrities who released tributes and covers of their music, were technically profiting from the loss, even though that may not have been their intent. There's the face time they got, the good will factor, and then there's also the fact that new fans may come their way, folks who had been a fan of the celebrity who died, and who now discover the music of the person who released the cover or tribute. Heck, it could even put a celebrity back in the spotlight after a hiatus.
It's easy to just point a finger at the hack who printed a memorial t-shirt or mug, and say they are profiting, but there are so many ways to profit, and I do think people take advantage of all of those - and yet, some of that - a lot of it even - actually helps people heal, so is it a bad thing?
But ultimately, what happens after death is more about the mourning than the dead - they are gone, they don't likely care about any of that.
And what about this element about collective social media grieving. When every single person posts an MLK quote on MLK Day, do the quotes lose their power or do they all add fuel to the fire?
I guess that depends on the goal. If they are trying to work through grief then that is what they need for now, or the only way they know to reach out, to tell others they are sad or hurting. Are there arguably better ways in which to do that, and better resources to turn to? Certainly. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes in our culture, people don't know how to even verbalize their feelings, especially about death. And honestly, for many, especially those who have not known someone who died, they may be bumping up against their mortality, and may be struggling with a lot of feelings and emotions, that they may not even have the words to express. Maybe they don't know how to say it. Maybe they feel silly saying that they are now thinking of their own mortality. Maybe they don't have the kind of relationships where they feel safe opening up. And so, perhaps social media is how they are processing. Ideal? Likely not. And yet - compared to no outlet? Perhaps better - unless something goes wrong. Of course, on the internet, many things can go awry, and their expression could lead to any number of negative responses. Except, when it doesn't. Except, when it creates true support. So this isn't really a question I can answer yes or no to, it is - like most things - a situation of "could be good, could be bad."
As for quotes, I actually fear we are desensitizing ourselves to inspirational thoughts, much the way we've desensitized ourselves to violence, death, and grief in television, film, and even the news. We've become a culture that gets upset by something, and we solve it by clicking to sign an online petition and share, and move on to the next cause - but have we really achieved something, or simply given ourselves the little endorphin bump that pats us on the back and says, "look, you cared!" In the same way, I think a number of people have grown to feel that because they read and liked or shared something inspirational, they are creating more positivity in the world. And, sometimes that may be true, but I know a lot of folks tell me they barely even register such things passing through their stream anymore.
Also on that vein, is it more self involved or more selfless to honor the dead online or on social media? Are we just trying to build on our own personal brands or is this just the way to genuinely grieve someone now?
I don't think it's selfless. I think if we are commenting on a loss, it's because it has become a loss we have noted. That's how we use social media, right? People use it to express where they are, and what they're feeling. Well, maybe. I think the trouble with this question is that there are three types of social media users. There are the brand-builders, building their brand either for revenue or fame. Then there are those who are using social media because they are hungry to connect. They may share the same kinds of content, but instead of wanting you to think they are cool, they are instead looking for validation so they can feel connected. So some want to profit by either gaining money or fame and others want to profit through feeling validated, accepted, part of the group.
But what of the third type I mentioned? These are people who honestly just want to connect and help people, folks who see it as we are all in this thing called life together, and it can be complicated, and, to quote a famous line they can, "Get by with a little help from my friends..." They want to feel that help, and to also be that help. For that group, I think their mourning is expressing they are hurting, and let's connect to share in this, so we can get through it - which is, technically, at the same time both self-involved (I need help; I want to connect with others) and self-less (others need help, let's band together). The first two groups, though? They are probably driven more by self-involvement. But again, grieving is for the living, and if that's their personality, maybe that's what they need.
I think my real issue here is the way in which we use "right versus wrong." I don't know that there is right or wrong when it comes to how we grieve. If someone is grieving, there may be healthier or less healthy ways to channel and express that. However, if you are asking outright whether it's ok for someone who is not grieving whatsoever to exploit it, I don't know that it is wrong as much as it is just icky, tacky. See that's the upside of a free market society, right? If they are producing it to exploit the death, but people who are genuinely grieving and buying the product and it is helping them, then is it truly wrong or is it helpful? Honestly these are questions of ethics, values, and integrity - and what is right for some, may not be right for the other.
Ok so right or wrong aside, what in your opinion is the most respectful or effective way to grieve an icon?
L: I think that grief - whether for an icon or a loved one - is about authentically doing what we need to do in order to move through our grief. If that's holding a tribute with friends, or listening to songs, or posting a message on social media, that's all good. However, I do think that while we should be able to own the space while grieving to do what we need to do, we are still part of the larger human story, and we must also keep in mind the role we play in our community. If others around us are grieving too, we have to question whether a public display of our grief is going to cause harm to others. Certainly there's intellectual property rights, when it comes to a celebrity - I shared a Youtube Prince video, then felt terrible, and took it down, because I recalled how hard he fought to keep such things offline. I wasn't trying to harm or disrespect him though - I was grieving the loss of an icon who had deeply, deeply impacted my coming of age. When I recalled he would have likely been upset by that though, I removed it.
That said my brother was killed in Iraq, and his Facebook page turned into a memorial. Folks regularly post photos and stories about him on there, and even though it's been many years, I always feel blindsided. I could be going about my day, and just popping onto Facebook, and I kind of feel randomly assaulted by grief. It's as if someone just popped online and yanked the scab off the wound. I finally had to remove myself as an admin from the page, otherwise I had no way to unfollow it. I still very much want to read the stories and view the photos posted. However, I want to choose when to do so, I don't want to be randomly blindsided day in and day out - it makes it much harder to move through grief, when that happens.
I think the best way to grieve is to sit with our grief, to move through it - but also to protect ourselves, if need be, from being broadsided by things on social media. That isn't as easy as one would think.
We sometimes forget that we cannot help but leave a wake behind us as we move through our days - and we can sometimes inadvertently drag someone under in it. For that reason, I try to post with intention, and consideration. I try to find the balance between connecting with others, and respecting where others may or may not be on their own grief path.
A celebrity death can also, it seems, allow us to express other griefs we haven't been able to acknowledge. I'm not a therapist, this is just opinion. But really, when I post, I try to keep in mind that random posts could trigger someone's grief on other issues, and I just try to be considerate. I ask myself "Why am I posting this?" and "What is the best way to honor this grief right now?"