A man told me once that speaking of someone badly after they had died holds the highest amount of disrespect one human can show another.
This has always remained an important belief of mine throughout my life. Whether you believe in heaven, hell, resurrection, karma, ghosts, or the Easter Bunny, there seems to be a small belief hard wired into everyone that the lives and memories of those who have unravelled the mortal coil should and must be held sacred. True, the guy was a real prick when he was alive and he did really bad things to a whole bus full of puppies in Michigan in 1983, so isn't that reason enough to forget he was ever alive? Why would you want to remind yourself of something like that over and over again? Honestly, you wouldn't...
Why would anyone want to speak of a person like that in either a positive or negative way?
As human beings I'm not sure what our motivation really is, but we've all done it once, twice or three times. We've gone bananas when death came knocking. We have figuratively kicked a man while he was "pushing up daisies" or canonized a woman we hardly knew as soon as the grim reaper drives up the avenue. Wouldn't it be easier and more respectful to treat death with silent, truthful, unexaggerated, respect? Is this a hard concept? Should it be a requirement before finishing high school? Should their be an additional standardized test given to all humans before entering adulthood? We could call it the "D.A.Ts", or the Death Aptitude Test. Forget not getting into Stanford because of your low score, how about being held back in life for bombing on your DAT scores? Well, the truth is, most of us would never make the grade.
I remember the time and place like it was yesterday. He stood their at the wake and complained about how Aunt Margaret was such a bitch for embarrassing him at the school play when he was thirteen. "I can't believe she yelled out that my fly was down in front of the whole school. What a witch. I never liked that woman. I'm glad she's dead", he whispered with a growl into the ear of his wife as she filled her gob with the last deviled egg on Margaret's own dining room table. "A nice dining room table" he adds. "What are they going to do with all this antique furniture?" is said without feeling like at a neighborhood garage sale. Demented and sad but very true. We don't say a word when they live, but after they die the bullwhips and the estate lawyers come out of the woodwork. A death, whether it be of someone you know, someone you've once met, or of someone uber-famous, makes many people dress themselves up in a weird, fake, cloak where they can justify any behavior while the "death shroud" temporarily hangs over reality.
There are those who hear of the death of a family member they had met once at a wedding when they were five. Unfortunately, all they remember is bad breath, greasy hair, and a boozy personality. They barely had a memory of them when they were alive not including the occasional comments like "Oh yeah...him" or "Will he be there?" and "Is he even my cousin?" come over their lips like watered down acid. These are the same people who always turn on their love light when hearing the news of death. They will turn on tears and sobbing so heavily that the producers of the movies "Beaches", "Brian's Song" or even "American Idol" would be envious. The barely known deceased becomes the cherished favorite family member who's passing will surely kill them as well. They will spin stories of their closeness. The times they shared and how they will be missed. It is creepy to witness. I once witnessed this with a co-worker who was the company gossip and back stabber. She left her mark on everyone's back like Zorro. You couldn't escape her fury.
Once, one of her favorite targets in mud-slinging lost her husband in a fire. A week previous to his death, she had been chatting around the water cooler how her husband had been "cheating with someone at our office". "She has it coming" I imagined her whispering under her breath, "she's not good enough for him." As soon as the word was out about his death, guess who was the first to embrace the widow with tear drenched arms? Who was passing the sympathy cards around the office with her version of the Serenity Prayer scrolled across the middle in deep red pen? Who was the first to say "I'm here for you" with that pseudo-sincere, Opra Winfrey-like tone? Our own mud hurling Zorro that's who. It almost would have been refreshing, but obviously sick, for her to blurt out an honest statement like: "Don't worry. I'm here. I will be here to use all my insecurity, and ignorance to push my jagged little knife in your back again and again while you are not looking. I will put you out of your misery too, once and for all. Don't worry." How comforting- but not that far from reality.
In the world of the rich, famous and infamous, it gets much weirder. The mud comes in bigger chunks. The tears and misery are flawlessly broadcast in high definition video and in crystal clear surround sound. The knives are much bigger and come in and out of the sheath at lightning's pace. It's amazing to witness and the players are as dramatic as a latin soap opera. As we all know, there is nothing more boring and drab as a clean living, perfectly normal celebrity. The world loves junk food. Big Whoppers of cheesy meat, divorce, drugs and sex served hot and fast between two warm pieces of gossip. Unfortunately, the scenarios are predictable. As we sit back and watch, the ingredients for this recipe are gathered together slowly. Sometimes we watch as a real person grows up on fame and fortune taking their lives down the same path as many have gone before. We want to yell out to them when we see the path take a sharp turn or head for the edge of a cliff, but it is almost easier just to stare at the train wreck in action. When this person is at the top of their game, there is a brief light of praise and brilliance shown upon them as bright as heavenly light. A star is born. Unfortunately, to those who carry the knives, the light becomes too bright and needs to be dulled or even snuffed.
As I get older I become aware of how the treatment of talented, artistic, sensitive, and truthfully gifted people has grown to the point of inhumane. I've witnessed the rise and fall of so many in my lifetime it feels like I have served as an accomplice to their deaths due to my own apathy. As a society, we have begun to enjoy the misery more than the accomplishments of the world's gifted. I grew up watching the birth, life and death of iconic genius. Artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Michael Jackson walked the twisted dangerous path of fame but were tagged with a sign reading "Kick Me" along the way. Elvis came from the dirt and sweat that all poor Americans taste but work hard to overcome. His gifts were extraordinary and so was his heart. At first his innocence was the stuff that the media wanted and it was what we loved. Somewhere along the way, the light began to fade, the knives needed to carve out the innocence and hopefully cash in on the misery. The paper's read "Elvis leaves Pricilla" and the first cut is made. Drugs, sex, violence, unorthodox behavior followed and was broadcast for our entertainment. "Elvis is Dead" was the final thrust and the period on the sentence...or was it? We watched Tupelo's favorite son dragged through the gutter of journalistic sensationalism for the next twenty years. "Elvis is Alive", "Presley died on the toilet", "Elvis on drugs at the White House", "Martians brought Elvis to earth" and "New York homeless man believed to be Elvis Presley" read like disrespectful slaps year after year. I never saw the headlines read "Elvis Presley: Please Rest in Peace". I don't think I ever will.
John Lennon paid dearly for wanting to do what is right and save as many lost souls as possible along the way. He was not as charming as Paul, quiet as George, or as goofy as Ringo. The mark of the rebel could be seen on his hands immediately as he stepped off that plane in New York on February 7, 1964. He said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he wrote about Revolution, grew his hair and spent a week in bed for peace with a strange Japanese artist named Yoko Ono. He wasn't normal and the media ate this up with gravy. The FBI spent years trying to run him out of the country because he seemed like a subversive, revolutionary. When all began to calm down for John with wife and their small boy, his story would again change. After he was gunned down in cold blood, the world mourned, the artistic communities remembered him, and the media paid their respect. After the coals cooled and the old Beatle stories lost their luster, the mud began to rise once again with the headlines "Lennon's Affair exposed", "Ex-Beatle was a drunk and violent husband" and "John Lennon's Heroin Addiction". We found out more about John after his death than when he was alive and very famous. In 2000, I went to an exhibit at a well respected music museum featuring John Lennon's work. As expected, I saw the white piano which John had used to compose the song "Imagine" almost twenty years before. I saw notebook pages full of his work and his famous round framed glasses sitting in a solitary glass case. Unfortunately, to my horror and disappointment, the glasses were stained with blood along with several other belongings to remind me, just in case I had forgotten, that he was senselessly murdered one quiet evening on his way home in 1980. A tear came to my eye as I wondered why and wanted nothing more than to strangle who thought this would be the best way to remember him. Blood and death sells more music that pure talent any day.
The death of Michael Jackson was more expected thanks to the wonderful preparations made by society, the media and our own thoughts. By the year 2009, the crazy lives and excentricities of mainstream celebrity is common place. There are web sites dedicated to daily monitoring of the steady decline of the rich, and sickly. Mr. Jackson has been a figure of criticism since he first stepped on stage in the late sixties. After the first year's realization of how talented and cute Michael and the Jackson brothers seemed to appear, the hunt began. The search for the hairline crack began hard and fast. We saw his life become a sad circus. His strange behavior, the physical alterations of his body and face, wild spending, rumors of sexual misconduct with children, and the roller coaster of financial difficulty. Michael had it all. Again, unfortunately, the things that mattered much less that his contributions as an artist were greatly overshadowed. Another life was exposed for the slaughter for the cause of pure entertainment. We all bought it and kept investing. His death was not surprising but for me was almost a relief. The media had chewed him up and spit him out mercilessly for years. They loved him when he enjoyed success or pioneered an artistic effort but flogged him at every turn of a failure. The week of his death was a media frenzy that I will always remember.
How can a journalist say that "Jackson was an artist of the upmost talent and gifted beyond human understanding. He will be dearly missed and forever remember for his great accomplishments and contributions." then spend the next thirty minutes debating if his addiction to drugs, the accusations of child molestation, or potential mental illness finally drove him to his grave? It doesn't make sense to me. Do we feel it is humane to throw your arms around someone with love, praise their efforts and accomplishments, and honor them as a pinnacle of human achievement...then with the same breath, impale them with the failures, shortcomings and wrongs that potentially live in all of us? We say "I have always hated you and I will take great joy in watching you fail. You deserve to suffer and eventually die, but I want you to know that I am always here for you and will be there for you forever. I love you." Is this how we respect our fellow man? From what I've seen, the world is becoming a colder and colder place. Death be not proud.
As the news continues to bombard us with all that is Jackson, I will strive to let the dead rest and refuse to care about the unimportant things that came before. This is not my way of becoming an apathetic, negative human place holder who doesn't care about my fellow man's life. If anything can truthfully clarify my compassion for the human race, the following words should prove to be very successful. When a person dies, expires, passes, or fades away, I will concentrate on the good they have accomplished in life and discard the assumption, rumor and failures that are sometimes exposed to my eyes and ears. If that person was a hero I will remember them for their sacrifice. If a person was infamous in life and had no values to cherish, I will remember them as well, but hope that their actions can be forgotten, forgiven and not exposed to cause any more pain in those who were first so personally effected. It does no good to concentrate on the failures and shortcomings of a person once they have passed away. These things cannot be changed and we have no power to reverse the final steps out of life.
Celebrate the person's legacy but let them go to wherever you believe they belong. I refuse to care what this person did not do or what they may have done to hurt me while on this earth. I will always remember them for their good works, but have no desire to be constantly reminded of the things they should, could or would have done. I think we have forgotten the power in three words concerning death and respect that seem to have faded from our culture. I think we have all been guilty of disrespect. To remind myself of it's importance, I will need to confirm it with my own words:
Elvis Presley, Rest in Peace.
John Lennon Rest in Peace.
Michael Jackson, Rest in Peace.
I hope we can learn to turn off the lights and finally let them all go to sleep. -BT