Sunday, January 30, 2011

When Death Becomes A Spectacle . . .

We’ve all heard it said that death does wonders for your career.
The saying has its origins in show business.
And it’s true.
When actors or performers or famous people die there is usually a sudden surge of interest in their work. 
And this is especially true when they die young and/or tragically. Then, they can achieve certain box office immortality.
In show business, death has always been big business.
But now death and calamity and tragedy have themselves become an ongoing spectacle.
Yes, as strange as it may seem death is now a show.
I thought of this as I watched the huge memorial service broadcast from the McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona for victims of the Tucson shootings.
The whole scene took on the atmosphere of a pep-rally. Incredibly, the event had its own colors, its own logo, its own slogan (“Together We Thrive”) and even its own commemorative t-shirts. It was branded, just like a product or a service or a superstar mega-event.
And what bigger attraction is there than a sleek, young, handsome, eloquent President who has himself been called a rock star?
Of course, we’ve seen this before at similar marquee memorial events – most notably the memorial service for the late, so-called King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
But it doesn’t even seem to matter anymore whether or not the deceased was well known. There will be a show.
We want a show. That’s what we’ve come to expect.
Still, it wasn’t always like this.
Once upon a time memorial services were quiet and solemn and seriously reflective.
Now, what used to be called wakes are deemed “life celebrations” and they come complete with full-fledged collections of the flotsam and jetsam of a person’s life -- snapshots, posters, books, videos, sound recordings, wardrobe items, hand-written notes, letters, e-mails, ephemera and other assorted stuff.
It’s almost like we’re not allowed to be truly sorrowful anymore. Our sorrow must now be cloaked in celebration, or at the least in sweet sentiment. Whatever reflections we have must be directed toward a person’s life on earth rather than on anything that might lie beyond.
We just don’t seem to want to deal with the deeper spiritual meaning of death. Maybe it’s because so many of us have rejected a traditional spiritual component in our own lives. And, since life cannot be separated from death, lives devoid of spirituality lead to deaths that are trapped in a sort of temporal vacuum.
So, we are left to fall back on t-shirts, slogans, makeshift memorials and trivial bromides.
In some ways, this is not only an insult to the dead and their families but a stark and chilling reflection of the emptiness of modern life.
Furthermore, in the face of death at the hands of a violent criminal, we are now loath to express anger or speak of retribution. Instead, we must envelop ourselves in the balm of understanding and compassion just as we dare not speak of evil.
Of all the public statements released in the wake of this most recent tragedy, only two were noteworthy for addressing evil and its just consequences. The first was from former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who promptly spoke of good and evil and looked forward to “the swift and harsh punishment that awaits the perpetrator of this cowardly attack.” The other was from Sarah Palin who called the perpetrator “an evil man” who took the lives of “peaceful citizens.”   She added: “America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed.”
But I fear we have become too rooted in the amorality of the here and now and too hopelessly self-absorbed to heed those words and find that added strength.
As the great historian Daniel J. Boorstin noted: “As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.”
The lesson is clear: In the end, we cannot survive adversity and we cannot thrive (whether alone or together) until we look beyond ourselves.
Note: Much of the above appeared in the Courier-Post newspaper on January 23, 2010.

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