This weekend the singer Stephen Gately died at his residence in Majorca. At the time of writing, the cause of death is unknown but suicide, foul play and drugs abuse are not being suggested. I was provoked in to making this post by the reaction to the death that I noticed from various friends and acquaintances who took teh death quite hard but who also commented on the ‘gallows humour’ and apparent indifference of people to the fellow’s passing.
Mr Gately was clearly well loved by friends, family and fans. I have to say that he meant little to me – a passing aquaintance with his name on the news – but unfortunately those who live as celebs must die as celebs, and part of that is the sick jokes marking their passing. Since the widespread uptake of email, and especially since the web, this sort of humour has followed celebrity death as quickly and inexorably as paparazzi photographers and ambulance chasing lawyers. Before electronic media, one at least had to wait for the jokes to appear in the newspapers / magazines or be passed from people who’d heard them from a friend who in turn heard them from a guy who knew the gardener of the dead celeb.
It’s rarely anything personal – it’s a coping mechanism, perhaps some of the milder jokes even provide the 21st Century version of marking the death of someone by printing the borders of the newspapers in black. As some of you will know I was Admin on Sheffield Forum for a couple of years. How to handle posted ‘dead person humour’ was an ongoing problem. I used to apply the rule of 24 – within the first 24 hours it’s not nice – after that, it happens. It may not be nice but it’s a byproduct of being in the celebrity food chain. When you stop swimming in the media seas, your body sinks and the local bottom dwellers come and dismember the body, so to say….
One comment made stuck with me; imagine going to bed at 33 years old and not waking up. When I was a kid I lost a friend who died at age 11. As a younger man I lost a friend who died at 21. Every morning in the developing world people in their 30s don’t wake up because they’ve died in the night of malnutrition, AIDS, Malaria, Cholera. At the risk of sounding callous, I’m afraid that death is not the preserve of the poor, the sick, the elderley and the nobodies in the world. It’s pretty Catholic in it’s tastes and can strike out at anyone – not just people who immediately surround us, and those of our modern pantheon of celebrities that our media choose to inform us are worthy of dying publically. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not hypocritical enough to comment that I feel the death of total strangers in the developing world at all in my life – I don’t – but neither am I willing to go to serious grief over a celebrity who I didn’t know from Adam and who doesn’t even know I personally exist, except as part of a demographic.
I’m willing to admit to being sad at the deaths of three celebs in particular – John Peel, Joe Strummer and Johnny Cash. I grew up with their music playing an important part of my life to varying degrees, so can empathise with people who’ve felt the loss of Mr Gatley as a figure in their musical upbringing – and especially those who’ve actually met the fellow. Whilst we can all reflect on John Donne’s words about ‘ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you’ it’s worth also reflecting on whether your feelings are genuinely inspired by the death, or inspired by the media scrum surrounding the death suggesting how we should feel.