SBC Life Articles

Popular Grief

JFK Jr.'s tragic death has left me bewildered at the whole issue of public grief. I have given my crowded mind much space in the attempt to sort through what makes cultures cry. I have lived through the deaths and interments of many prominent world leaders, beginning with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945. I remember this specifically for we did not have a radio and having heard it on a neighbor's radio, I had the unlovely task of taking the news home to my mother, an ardent Roosevelt fan. She was shocked by the president's death and told me that "if I was lying to her she would beat me to death." Alas, the awe and fear her threat inspired in me! Being eight years old, I was not much of a Roosevelt fan, but I do remember hoping that I had heard the radio report correctly, since my mother had made it clear that if Roosevelt was not dead, I would be for reporting him so.

In the next years I would live through the assassination deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, JFK, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, et. al. The decades of my life came and went. With increasing frequency I noticed that the deaths of great humanitarians often caused the culture to weep less than the deaths of movie stars, entertainment moguls, and athletes. Why did more cultural bereavement gather around James Dean, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, John Wayne, John Huston, Yul Brynner, than the Shah of Iran or President Eisenhower?

I remain befuddled by popular bereavement. I will never understand completely the popular soak of grief over Princess Diana and JFK, Jr. I remember a friend of mine who was asked how he felt about the loss of Princess Diana. He hung his head and sighed, "I didn't feel all that much really. I guess I just wasn't as close to her as everyone else was."

When I saw his shame over not being sadder than he was, I asked myself what are the well springs of cultural grief, and why are some deaths an instant call for national grief while others are completely overlooked by the media?

Regarding JFK, Jr., a magazine editor, the collected articles and video magazines lamented the pain of America's Great Royal Family. I was surprised that as an American I had a royal family. Wasn't our nation birthed because we were so upset with royalty in 1776? Still, the American mood was somber, and we were all expected to weep. To be sure, some in the Kennedy family had served America notably and for them there were well-deserved eulogies. But what about the other princes in the royal family? Ted Kennedy, it was noted, had triumphed over his tragedy at Chappaquiddick (no mention was made of Mary Jo Kopechne, who had less of a triumph there). There were long litanies of the innumerable tragedies that had struck the Kennedy dynasty throughout the twentieth century. Camelot was gone, they said. JFK Jr., the Prince of Camelot, was buried at sea, not because he was an admiral at Trafalgar, but because he liked sailing. For days and days the media created a mythos of national grief. To be sure, everyone has the right to be grieved at their passing. Life is to be cherished and to some extent every death is great loss. But that is true for all the other families in America who attended other unrelated funerals during those same days. Why? Why are some lingeringly grieved over and so many others so ignored? Who can track it all? Alas, here are my conclusions.

First, people cry when the media tells us to cry. The media covers the world, and especially when there is little other real news to be reported, it is able to create the news they wish America to focus on. The media long ago realized that name recognition is important to getting a hearing. "More important people" create more important news. As for the many other Americans who died during that period of time, they were forced to consent that our major weeping had been assigned us.

Second, rich and famous are two key adjectives that signal grief. Mother Theresa died at the same time as Princess Di, but her efforts to make Calcutta a "City of Joy" were somehow missed by the grieving western world. Why? Movie stars and athletes are really the beautiful people to the masses. And beautiful people hold the center of the news in a soft culture; their deaths are more tragic than the deaths of those who may actually have been more altruistic during their lives.

Third, the rich, famous, and beautiful have always captured our attention from news release to news release. They rarely do anything desperately notable as compared, say, with missionaries or great humanitarians, but we know their lives. From tabloid to tabloid we walk with them through drug problems, divorces, film reviews, accounts of their financial holdings, child problems, adulteries, etc. So when they die – and many of them die in rather embarrassing ways – we know all about them. It is somehow easier to cry over people we have formerly gossiped about. They have usually lived pretty much for themselves, but suddenly it is irreverent to speak irreverently of them. But then every scoundrel becomes a hero in the dying. Everyone speaks well of the dead. Just being dead somehow always improves our reputation.

Fourth, I suspect there is a sensitivity in the masses that must have heroes – those who in some cases are less heroic than their admirers. Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book in the seventies called The Denial of Death. This is a wonderful book, the point of which is that people without much of a view of the afterlife are able to deny their own deaths by either choosing to be a hero or by adopting a hero. Heroes are often thought of in heroic ways. Medals of honor, Good Samaritan Plaques, Freedom Cups are their best rewards. But in a culture where money and fifteen minutes of fame are the great goals, the rich and famous become the fodder of national grief. Modern heroes don't have to be sacrificial. They don't have to have saved lives or dedicated themselves to building a better world. They just have to be rich and famous. This will land them in the pits of national gossip. Stars like Dennis Rodman – not yet dead – lead us all to conclude that "fame and infamy are both publicity." Get publicity and die, and the world is more likely to grieve. Merely serving God or His lofty dreams spawns an anonymity that assures us our dying will be done quietly and without the benefit of cameras.

I hope I do not translate as a cynic. It's just that while I have lived through the passing of many notable people, I cried mostly at the passing of those whom only God knew and esteemed. I have spent most of my funeral time weeping over God's noble unknown. There, where the dirt was turned fresh, I cried. I wept while their caskets were lowered. As I wept, I wished that these, the gallant small timers, might have been better known. But alas, they were too real, too courageous, too moral, too much a symbol of all that is noble. They lived so well they were rarely gossiped about. Thus they were laid to rest in some nameless cemetery, as anonymous at their passing as they had been in life.

But God is God and fair is fair. And someday the noble anonymous will be up for better publicity. Resurrections have a way of even-ing things out. The trump will sound, and those fanfares the world never gave them will make a write up in The Times seem but trivial recognition. A better Camelot will have been born as a city indestructible and built four-square. Then God will ultimately wipe all tears from our eyes. Then shall the King say to those on his right hand, Come you blessed of my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34)

    About the Author

  • Calvin Miller