Grateful Dead: Death As A Passport To Celebrity

Illustration for article titled Grateful Dead: Death As A Passport To Celebrity

A scholar is now making the case that "the modern obsession with celebrity" started with an 18th century interest in obituaries. If by "obsession" she means "morbid curiosity" and by "celebrity," "notoriety," than maybe. Either way, it's clear that we've always had a sick fascination with other people's antics — and their deaths.Elizabeth Barry of the University of Warwick finds that widely-read obituaries were one of the first ways regular people attained celebrity — albeit posthumously. People's life stories were run as cautionary tales in the 17th century — showing the consequences of wicked or virtuous living — but quickly became a popular human interest read. Initially, the obits featured royalty and other public figures, but the genre grew to include all kinds of people who'd led interesting lives. Says Barry, "Different kinds of deaths came to be commemorated and you didn’t have to be something like a military hero or be a political player or be some sort of high person in society to get public commemoration on your death." Eventually, the obit-mongers were criticized for catering to low-brow tastes hungry for scandal. But Barry feels the universality of death acted as an equalizer and created the sense of identification that characterizes the modern celeb-public relationship. Of course, by any standard this is a conveniently reductive definition of celebrity - weren't the "military heroes and political players" already kind of celebrities? - but the notion of a fleeting, arbitrary celebrity, manufactured for public entertainment and then discarded, is certainly a unique phenomenon. If Barry's theory holds any water, there's a pleasing neatness to the notion of a life, reduced to a few paragraphs for strangers' delectation, with the veneer of beneficence. Wholly public, yet completely selfish. When Rupert the Baby Deer died last month - only a day after we'd learned about his existence - our shared grief was overwhelming. A friend mused that in a sense this mini emotional roller-coaster was really our celebrity-obsessed age to scale: the emotion is no less real for its lack of depth, but as the stories end, so too does our interest. The tragedy is somehow a neat cap to the narrative. From death cars to autopsies, we feel a right to know how and why things ended - to know if the end was just or tragic. Maybe Barry's onto something. Dead People In 1700s Were The First Celebrities[Live Science]


Erin Gloria Ryan

When I die, I want someone to use a picture of a skeleton or a zombie to accompany my obit. It would be my final act of goofball-ness.