Death By Social Media

ripsocialmediaWilliam Christopher, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, Liz Smith, Rick Parfitt, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Alan Thicke, Wayne Duncan, Anne Deveson, Peter Vaughan, Andrew Sachs, Robert Vaughn, Greg Lake, Peter Sumner, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Colonel Abrams, Pete Burns, Gene Wilder, Ross Higgins, Kenny Baker, Peter Collingwood, Arnold Palmer, Max Walker, Garry Marshall, Muhammad Ali, Fred Tomlinson, John Berry, Prince Rogers Nelson, Merle Haggard, Gareth Thomas, Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling, Jon English, Norman May, Ken Sparkes, Richard Neville, Harper Lee, Vivean Gray, Lady Susan Renouf, Lewis Fiander, Reg Grundy, Frank Kelly, Bruce Mansfield, Alan Rickman, Bob Ellis, Keith Emerson, Don Battye, Arthur Tunstall, David Bowie, Black, Lois Ramsey and Glenn Frey.

Question: what do these 54 names have in common?

Answer: they’re all names of people who died during 2016, as if you didn’t already know… or did you?

How many of those names do you actually recognise? They weren’t all “superstars” per se, but they were all noteworthy folk from the sporting, political and entertainment worlds. You might’ve seen something about their deaths online, in the press, or on TV. But which of them did you read about on social media?

I was familiar with the work or achievements of each person in that list, but it’s only a tiny sample of the full list of last year’s ‘celebrity deaths’.

That’s how it is when famous folk die these days. Social media makes some of them hyper-visible to us (which, in turn, makes us hyper-aware of them), while others go virtually unnoticed. But this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.

Facebook and Twitter users have long latched on to of-the-moment issues with relentlessness and tenacity that’s rarely seen offline. The repeated incidence of this short-term, intense focus on individual topics creates the impression that all manner of relatively uncommon things are occurring in unprecedented numbers all the time—celebrity deaths, drownings, one-punch attacks, lockout law-related business failures, US Presidential elections, and so on.

Every year social media spotlights the deaths of the most well-known of the well-known, simply because they’re the deaths that users react to en masse; conversely, every year the same users blithely overlook the deaths of tens of thousands of lesser-known but nonetheless notable people who, for whatever reason, weren’t on the social media radar—basically, that’s anyone without ‘legend’ status and/or anyone two or more generations older than the average user.

Admittedly, by the closing moments of twenty-sixteen it did seem that the Grim Reaper’s boney index finger had reached out to touch many more celebs than in recent years—but had it really?

Was last year actually that much worse than previous years, or did it just seem that way thanks to repeated social media über-focus? And were they really all so unexpected, or is it simply that an increasing number of the most recognisable faces of our time are now of an age when, inevitably, more of them are likely to die?

Coz, to be fair, 1996 was a pretty appalling year for notable deaths too. From a list that’s far longer in full, I recall being aware of more than sixty of them at the time, among whom were Gene Kelly, Audrey Meadows, McLean Stevenson, George Burns, Greer Garson, P.L.Travers, Jon Pertwee, Ella Fitzgerald, Cubby Broccoli, Margaux Hemingway, Claudette Colbert, Tupac Shakur, Dorothy Lamour, Ted Bessell, Beryl Reid, Spiro Agnew and Tiny Tim.

Things weren’t much better ten years later, with the list of headline deaths in 2006 including such luminaries as Lou Rawls, Shelley Winters, Don Knotts, Gene Pitney, Aaron Spelling, Syd Barrett, June Allyson, Mickey Spillane, Glenn Ford, Steve Irwin, Jane Wyatt, Jack Palance, Robert Altman, Joseph Barbera, James Brown and Gerald Ford.

Before the advent of Facebook and social media as we know it today, a celebrity death was something we heard about on the radio or saw on the TV news, we read about them in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes—increasingly so by the middle of last decade—we found out about them online. Then we talked about them at work, at school, or at the pub, back when word of mouth was still a thing.

Very occasionally, the death of a prominent figure—think JFK, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson—has generated once-in-a-generation mass outpourings of grief. But the majority of celebrity deaths were a topic of some limited conversation, generally only until a funeral was held, or TV and radio tributes had aired; beyond this, further discussion was typically relegated to “where were you when…?” conversations, some time in the distant future.

Today, social media is so inward-looking that it seems what’s happening right now is all that matters and is unprecedented. The past is often a distant and alien land, beyond the comprehension of those who don’t remember it or were never there. But history always repeats and, whether we remember it or not, it’s almost inevitable that most of what we see around us has happened before.

Social media regulars seemingly spent most of 2016 gasping, crying, honouring or grieving the loss of certain well-known individuals, as if celebrity deaths had never happened on such a scale before; more likely is that users had simply never experienced the intense social media focus on so many notable deaths in the one year.

Twenty-eight years ago, the world mourned the loss of just as many—if not more—significant figures as were farewelled in 2016. From across the spectrum of politics, sport, the arts and literature, and all the various elements of stage, screen and sound, Lucille Ball, Daphne Du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Graham Chapman, Irving Berlin, Herbert von Karajan, Mel Blanc, Jim Backus, Salvador Dali, John Meillon, Bette Davis, Robert Mapplethorpe, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Sir Laurence Olivier all died in 1989. All were giants of their respective times and crafts; as years of sad losses go, it was one of the saddest.

Two years later the roll-call was just as long; in 1991 we said au revoir to Freddie Mercury, Miles Davis, Michael Landon, Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), Gene Tierney, Danny Thomas, Gene Roddenberry, Fred MacMurray, Lee Remick, Natalie Schafer, Brad Davis, Robert Maxwell, Irwin Allen, Martha Graham, Sheila Florance, Gerry Davis, Frank Capra, Serge Gainsbourg, Carmine Coppola, Margot Fonteyn, Graham Greene, Jean Arthur, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Peggy Ashcroft, Michael Pertwee and Joan Caulfield. You may not remember or know all of those names but, as in 1989, they were all significant figures in their respective fields.

Arguably, if people had responded to celebrity deaths in the 80s and 90s with the same emotional fervour as posters, sharers and tweeters today, we might’ve always felt that we were constantly being bombarded by news of celebrity deaths; if that intense, widespread focus had always been there, there mightn’t be such a strong sense that everything happening today is the biggest, most, best or worst that’s ever been.

It’s really about keeping things in perspective and recognising that, as much as we might want it to be, there’s not much about the ever-expanding bubble we inhabit today that’s especially unique to the here and now.

Instead of obsessing about the minutiae of the present, perhaps we should look back a little? Maybe tipping our hats to what’s gone before and attempting to understand the past could be the best way for us to prepare for what’s yet to come?

So here’s a great big “RIP” and “vale” to everyone who died during recent years without being mourned on social media. Irrespective of how few tweets they might’ve generated, their deaths were not insignificant and they didn’t go entirely unnoticed.

At this difficult time…

death-dont-mention-the-warThere are three words that Australians really, really don’t like using: died, death and dead.

Why do so many people find those words so unpalatable that, instead, they use old-fashioned expressions full of religious allusions they probably don’t even recognise? For a nation of an increasingly secular – if not irreligious – disposition, the deference we show to “the final act” is unlikely, to say the least.

“Pushing up the daisies” is a funny old thing, isn’t it? Well, no, not ‘funny’ exactly. More ‘curious’ than ‘funny’. “Pushing up the daisies” is a curious thing, isn’t it? It’s all around us and everyone experiences it some time, yet it’s also an intensely personal thing with intensely personal responses. In some cases it’s also an unexpected and shocking thing, all at once stressful, frightening, life-changing and distressing in equal measure. But it’s an inescapable fact of life that we all eventually “cease to be”. Whether the result of a tragic accident, a terminal illness, by our own hand or from old age, “the Pale Rider’s” bony finger comes to us all sooner or later.

More than 50 million people “shuffle off this mortal coil” every year, but millions more never want to mention it. Rather than knowing what their loved ones want when they “join the choir invisible”, they carry on as if “when the worst happens” is something they’ll never need to deal with, never acknowledging the reality of what “when the time comes” actually means.

What’s really strange is that when a person loses their life due to the actions of another, they’re almost always described as having been murdered; if they’re involved in a fatal accident, they’re said to have been killed. The connotations of both words are very much of something awful, distressing, even frightening. No one ever describes a murder victim or accident fatality as having “passed against their will” or that they “involuntarily passed away”. It stands to reason, then, that if the thing that rendered life extinct was awful, most people feel OK about freely and openly using awful words to describe it. But if the extinction of life was entirely natural – or at least of naturally occurring causes – the word used to describe the act has to be something flowery and inoffensive, as if to somehow take the edge off the reality. This effectively implies that a natural death is more awful than a fatal accident or homicide… can that be right?

So why is it all so taboo? Of course it’s sad when those we love go “wandering the Elysian Fields” and nobody wants to start imagining details of how and when it might happen. But everyone is “called home” someday and, in my experience, the conversation you should have – the one about what they want you to do with them once they “join the departed” and establishing if there’s anything you need to know about – is far easier to have when they’re not staring the Grim Reaper in the eye-socket than it is when his bony finger is about to go in for the final tap.

For as long as I can remember, people who “entered eternal rest” were said to have “passed on” or “passed away”. I was raised Catholic so I eventually put two and two together and I subsequently assumed that anyone who used either term was, obviously, devoutly religious. Indeed, the sobriety that invariably surrounds “going to the big house in the sky” is rarely a topic made light of, which is all part of the mystery because practicing religion in this country is something of a dying art (pun acknowledged). While people may claim to be one thing or another, the number of places of worship with greatly diminished congregations tells another story, so it seems improbable that the merest hint of “the stairway to heaven” should have so many Australians donning a hushed veil of clerical solemnity.

Everyone’s “so sorry to hear your sad news”; “thoughts go out” and “hearts go out” all over the place; people who’d never ordinarily pray apparently offer prayers up the ying yang, for you and your family, for the “recently departed” and their friends and almost anyone else they ever knew; distant relatives and occasional acquaintances who you never see from one millennia to the next appear, as if by magic, telling you to let them know if there’s anything they can do (though the parameters of “anything” are rarely, if ever, defined); and social media folk post comments like some awful hybrid of The Sermon On the Mount and a really bad Hallmark card: “May you find strength in knowing that he/she is in a better place”…. “our hearts/love/thoughts/wishes go out to you at this most sad/difficult time/in your time of loss”… OK, just stop it! Nobody ever actually says stuff like that face-to-face, so how come so many people say it in writing, just because someone’s “gone to meet their maker”?

Believe it or not, grieving people won’t actually break if you speak to them using normal language – that is, words and phrases which openly reference the fact that their loved one has “assumed room temperature”. Word to the wise: the grieving do actually know why they’re sad. All the whispering, banal euphemisms and priestly platitudes in the world won’t make them forget, they just make the “passing” sound like a bizarre secret.

And exactly when did this “passing” nonsense make the grade, anyway? It certainly seems to be the phrase du jour where “resting in peace” is concerned. Passed what, or where, I wonder? Unless you’re devoutly religious you surely wouldn’t use terms so clearly proceeding from religion? The etymology of “pass”, as it pertains to the act of dying, is most certainly a North American euphemism, so the spread of a more ‘global’ language via social media is, presumably, responsible for increased “passing” in Australia over the last decade? Either way, it sounds rubbish and it needs to stop.

There are actually loads of euphemisms for death with clear links to religion. I’ve used a whole bunch of them already and – for reasons probably best explained by ‘listaholics’ – the Internet is littered with pages dedicated to listing (and, often, lampooning) death euphemisms. Many of these terms are actually derived from, based on or directly reference a religious belief or concept. But in a contemporary secular context, even though their usage continues their original meaning – and, almost certainly, their etymology – are lost, so it’s entirely possible that the religious connection is less intentional and more habitual. They get trotted out every time someone dies, so we just keep using them – could that be how it works?

People get so put off by the merest hint of death and go to great lengths to apologise if they feel they’ve unintentionally made even the slightest out-of-place comment. Six years ago my Dad was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. About a year later, at a friend’s funeral, another friend who hadn’t seen me for about six months asked how Dad was going. “He’s dead, actually”, I responded, matter-of-factly. My poor friend. I can’t really apologise for my response – my Dad really was dead, there was no getting away from it. I knew it to be so because I’d seen it happen with my own eyes so, to my mind, there was no other way to respond. But for my poor friend, whose mind probably functions more like the majority of people’s minds than my own does, it was a bit of a double whammy: here we were, already at the funeral of a friend who’d died at far too young an age and then, he imagined, he’d gone and put his foot in it in just about the worst possible way. I’ve never seen anyone try to apologise quite so profusely. For my friend, it truly was the definition of one of those horrible moments when you wish the ground would open up and swallow you. I didn’t think twice about it, though. Dad had actually died, therefore Dad definitely was dead. My friend didn’t do it, he had nothing at all to do with it; nor had I been in touch with him since Dad died, so he wasn’t to know. In fact, I had no feelings one way or the other about him asking me how Dad was. Anyone else probably would have lowered their voice, adopted a more serene whisper-like tone and advised my friend, with mouth cupped by hand, that Dad had “passed away” recently and sorry for not letting you know. I probably could’ve done that too… nup, that’s just not how I roll. I call a spade a spade.

We should all call a spade a spade. Life is life. Death is death. Loss is hard and grieving is forever. But let’s call it what it is. Last year a friend of mine – one of the bravest ladies I’ve ever known – came out and openly, repeatedly, acknowledged that her youngest son had committed suicide. She didn’t soften the blow by saying he’d made a “life choice”, she said he’d committed suicide. Her daughter also said it like it was in her wonderful blog too when she spoke about her brother killing himself. There was no delicacy applied to it, because none was needed. He’d done what he did and, as a result, he was dead. Saying he’d “made a life choice” wouldn’t have changed that outcome, just as choosing not to dress up what he’d done with flowery euphemisms didn’t change the way my friend or her daughter felt about their endlessly loved son and brother.

The sooner we learn not to be afraid of using the words openly and honestly, the better equipped we are to deal with life, death and all of their friends.