Dying in Public

As a friend of mine commented recently, a lot of people have died this summer. By that he meant that a lot of famous people have died this summer; I'm reasonably confident that the global death toll isn't substantially higher than what is typical between June and September. But the list is long of names instantly recognizable:

Koko Taylor, June 3
David Carradine, June 3
Ed McMahon, June 23
John Callaway, June 23
Michael Jackson, June 25
Farrah Fawcett, June 25
Billy Mays, June 28
Karl Malden, July 1
Martin Hengel, July 2
Steve McNair, July 4
Robert McNamara, July 6
Oscar G. Meyer Jr., July 6
Walter Cronkite, July 17
Frank McCourt, July 19
John Hughes, August 6
Eunice Kennedy Shriver, August 11
Les Paul, August 13
Robert Novak, August 18
Ted Kennedy, August 25
Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein, August 28

These names are instantly recognizable to me because of where I live, how I grew up, and what in the world around me interests me. There's a painfully long list of newsworthy people who died this summer, whose names are not familiar to me but who would give a moment's pause to other people, in other places, of other interests. I feel sorry for Canadian hockey player Ted Kennedy, who died earlier this month but whose death, even his name, is overshadowed by the death of the lion of the U.S. Senate. Senator Kennedy lay in repose for several days and was brought by car to a visitation site in Boston. His funeral is this morning, where the sitting U.S. president will eulogize him. He'll be buried next to his brothers in Arlington National Cemetery.

His death, we might hope, bookends an emotionally exhausting summer that might be thought to begin with the same-day deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Fawcett's death was anticipated, even produced for television, but Jackson's death caught us off guard and left people wondering how to pay their respects to each without neglecting the other. In the end, Jackson's death captured more of the national imagination, and was marked by red-carpet memorials in New York, Los Angeles and his hometown of Gary, Indiana.

I find myself wondering who decides the terms for mourning for any given death, and how they are decided. Why not, for example, a more public memorial for Walter Cronkite, who anchored some of the most profound moments of twentieth-century world history? Why not a nationwide "Day of Blues" to mark the far-reaching influence of Koko Taylor? Why not a broad public conversation about the interplay between Judaism, Christianity and paganism in honor of Martin Hengel's groundbreaking work?

These things happened in the particular pockets and corners of these people's primary worlds, I'm sure. And I'm sure the architects of the events that memorialized singer Jackson and Senator Kennedy had well-considered reasons for the decisions they made. But this long list of newsworthy deaths, if nothing else, should remind us of the much, much longer list of anonymous deaths, being mourned in private by people whose lives were no less touched by their little loved ones as by these big names. And likewise, these big-name deaths are no less significant for the bigness of their names. The poem by John Donne has become cliche, and rightly so, because it speaks truth: "Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind."


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