As January 2016 draws to a close, it seems clear that this month will be remembered by many as a time of unexpected grief. The deaths of Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and the Eagles' Glenn Frey—three fan-favorites of Western pop-culture—prompted an outpouring of sorrow and disbelief online.
Most of us, of course, never met these men. We knew them second-hand at best, through the characters they portrayed, through the stories they told, and through the songs that they sang. And yet the sense of loss is unmistakably real. It’s the sorrow many felt when the character Snape died in the Harry Potter series; it’s the grief many feel anew now that Alan Rickman has passed away.
Even if you were unfamiliar with these artists, you no doubt have known others whose deaths impacted you similarly—if not an actor or musician, then perhaps a writer. But what is it that makes us grieve celebrity deaths at all? Is it true, as some commentators have suggested, that this is a “misplaced grief”? Or is there some deeper reason why we mourn—and, indeed, should mourn—the famous?
When in 2015 Leonard Nimoy passed away, I remember feeling a deep sorrow. Through the magic of VHS, Nimoy had been a significant part of my childhood. I loved Star Trek. I still do. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock taught me many things—that it was okay to be different. That it was okay to think critically about the world around us. And—important for a child too certain of his own intelligence—that it was necessary to recognize our own limitations; we do not know everything.
In a very real sense, then, Nimoy was my friend; I never had to meet him for that to be true. His art helped, in some small part, to shape me into who I am today. And so his death mattered to me.
But—and this is a key point—so do the deaths of those celebrities for whom I have no attachment. Rickman’s acting I knew fairly well. Bowie I knew best as the Goblin King from Labyrinth. Frey’s work I knew very little at all. But all of their deaths still matter. Their deaths still can and should fill me with a sense of sorrow.
The seventeen-century poet-priest John Donne once remarked that “no man is an island.” We’ve all heard the phrase, but many of us misunderstand it. We assume it means that no one should go it alone—that we need to live in community with family and friends. That is all true, to be sure. And perhaps it is in this sense that we especially grieve those famous authors, actors, and musicians whose work we personally enjoy.
But Donne meant something much bigger than just this. He meant that, regardless of how we choose to live, we are inextricably connected to the larger mass of humanity. We are not islands, somehow divorced from one another. Instead, he writes, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
For this reason, Donne explains, the death of any other person is a tragedy in which we are all share. If we are all part of the continent of humanity, then the loss of any part of that continent is a loss to the whole. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” Donne explains, “because I am involved in mankind.”
When a celebrity dies to whom we have a particular attachment, we learn this lesson anew. Though we have not met these persons, we feel—often deeply—a sense of real loss. What Donne tells us is that this isn’t just an illusion; we are right to feel a certain sense of grief. The mass of humanity is one body; every loss is a wound to that one flesh.
Of course, for the body of Christ there is often added grief in these instances too. Because celebrities are subject to such intense public scrutiny, it is frequently the case that their faith—or lack of faith—is general knowledge. Christians may feel a particular pang as a result when those of contrary faith die. For these women and men have also been created by God; they too are those for whom Christ died. The rejection of his mercy is a tragedy inexpressible.
We are indeed right to grieve the famous. But let that grief be for us a memento mori—an encouragement to live life in the light of our own future deaths. Like the tolling of the bells, celebrity deaths serve as a reminder of of our own mortality. For we, like the famous we mourn, must die. The author of Hebrews puts it simply: “It is appointed unto men once to die.”
Even so, death is not the final chapter in our lives' stories. For after this, as the epistle to the Hebrews continues, comes “the judgment.” Death, in the end, is not the end. Ultimately, the books of our lives shall be laid open before God and men. And the story will continue.
“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.” – John Donne
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran magazine and communications manager for Lutheran Church–Canada. He also serves as editor for the International Lutheran Council. He tweets @captainthin.