I cannot get my head around our reverence for the dead. They’re the last ones to care.
Whatever your own personal conception of the afterlife, the dead either have much better things, or nothing at all, to do. They do not care what we think of them; they do not care if anyone walks on their graves; they most certainly do not care if they win some award for the stuff they’ve done.
If they care about anything at all – and my personal faith implies that they do not – I would suggest that the wellbeing of their nearest and dearest, and perhaps the reputation they have spent so long cultivating, would be the prime concerns of the dearly departed. Posthumous accolades do very little to improve one’s reputation: they merely offer a glimpse in to the level of mawkish sentimentality surrounding your newly minted membership of the Choir Invisible. They do even less for your family.
Why then do we feel the need, as soon as someone pops their clogs, to heap upon them plaudit after plaudit, accolade after accolade, as if such fancy trinkets are going to bring them back from the dark beyond, as if high praise is the need of the deceased, as if a corpse could give even half a hoot?
Guilt. My money, as smart as it isn’t, is on guilt. We feel guilty that this person did not know in life what is so obvious to us in their death: that we loved them. The problem here is that we didn’t love them. We love our parents, our partners, our children; we love living, and breathing and sex. We do not love actors, singers and songwriters. We appreciate their output, and that is how it should be.
The Norwegian language is a delightful thing to behold. For one thing, they have a whole word for the stuff you put on sandwiches – meat and cheese and the like – pålegg. Everything but the butter is covered by it. Similarly, they don’t love sandwiches; they are glad for them: “Glad i”, as in “Glad i deg”, meaning “I am glad in you”. It makes no sense in English, but it makes the semantic point: we are too quick to say we love something, when in actual fact we are simply glad for its existence.
As nominative determinism will ensure Mr Baker has a career in and around bread products, this love conflation will ensure that our collective outpourings of grief will feel all the more ruinous, as if we really have lost a loved one, when that is a great distance from the truth. They were a singer.
We risk an institutionalisation of such undeserved reverence, with the expectation of tribute whenever a famous person passes on. Imagine the ignominy of not receiving a moving epitaph at the Grammys, for the family of the recently deceased? How could they walk down the street after that?
We risk increasing the sense of loss experienced by people who lose actual loved ones, when grief is commercialised and played out on a national, a global, scale. The whole world shed a tear at the death of Michael Jackson; why does no one care my dog died today? Why is everyone so heartless?
We risk reducing news and current affairs to little more than celebrity gossip shows with our endless focus on the passing of the famous. Tonight we cover the death of a famous pop star, a drug addicted actor, and that guy who wrote that book. There are no wars, and no real people have died.
I understand that these are all examples where I have deliberately skewed reality in order to reduce my argument to its most absurd, button pushing snippets. That’s fine, it’s what I do. My point is that without differentiation we risk becoming a societal grief cult, rather than living in the here and now.
I would never suggest that there aren’t singers, actors and writers I would love to bring back from the dead for just one more go. But that’s why we have imaginary dinner parties. I’d have to invite Victoria Wood, Iain Banks, Kurt Cobain, Mary Wollstonecraft, and my Grandfather, Martin. We’d have a great time, eating, drinking and laughing. I’d have to bring my mother too; she’d love that.
My mother is not dead, by the way. If she were, would I want her to have an award? I mean, she means more than a lot to me, to my daughter and to all of the people who know her well enough to say that they love her, or are glad for her. But to you? Do you care whether my mother lives? These ideas are deeply personal, yet absolutely universal. Maybe such awards are necessary counterpoints to that: personally shallow, but universally shared. We all share in the experience of their death.
I’m drawn to the idea of the ecumenical; the community experience. It’s the thing I miss most about organised religion, now that I understand my faith lies in the absence of god. Perhaps, with our increasingly godless times, this celebrity worship and deification is the secular religion we need.
On the other hand, maybe the adulation of celebrity and the absence of culture they represent is precisely the kind of thing we need to distract ourselves from the evils of the world. People are being raped and killed all over the world at an horrific rate. At a declining rate, albeit, but the 24-hour news coverage we are submersed in, amplified by social media, steeps us all in a world of horror, of torture and of hate. It’s not even remotely real, but we drown it out with something even less real: the veneration of hard-working old men who produced pop songs we now realise we actually like.
Giving someone an award after they’ve died is a waste of an award; it could be that that’s why we do it so often: we missed the chance when they were alive, so now we need to redress the balance. Only, it offers one fewer slot for the up-and-coming to succeed; it offers less of a spotlight for those still finding their way in their chosen profession; it offers a reduced definition of success: It has to be all out adulation; it cannot just be a rewarding job, paying the mortgage and enough money left over to comfortably pay the bills, feed the kids and have a holiday. That would be a failure in our eyes.