As A Society, We Sure Treat Death Strangely

By December 29, 2016
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The following is an opinion piece on, well, death. Or more appropriately, the need to celebrate life.

Twice in the past two days, I’ve had to rush obituaries on strong women who have changed the face of Hollywood. And sadly, they were obituaries on both a daughter and a mother.

In my career, I’ve probably written hundreds of celebrity obituaries, and every single time, I learn something about that person that I didn’t know before. I then take that new piece of knowledge and store it away in my mind, hoping that by learning this little bit about his or her life, I’m somehow honoring that person.

And that’s what an obituary is meant to be – a way to one last time honor someone as they reach that ultimate milestone that faces all of us in the end. Even me, despite my claims of being immortal. It’s there, and at some point, every single person reading these words will have to face it.

Yet, as a society, we’re not really good at facing death. At least not from my perspective. Either we don’t talk about it at all, or we completely obsess about it. Especially now in the social media age, when we have access to all kinds of information, and the fact that hundreds of celebrities (of different popularity lists) die each and every year.

And now it’s to the point that we are literally blaming the year. People, many jokingly but some seriously, curse the year as if that (and not the fact we are all mortal) were somehow to blame. And it’s not just 2016. I’ve seen the same thing happen in 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 … it’s been going on for a while now.

Death is something that scares us, not just our own death, but those we are close to. Or those we simply know. And that’s understandable. No one knows what happens after we die. Even Betty White, who someone is now raising money (for charity) to “protect” her from 2016, once said that she sees death as a great mystery. And that when someone close to her passes away, she finds comfort in the fact that they now know the “secret” of what lies beyond that last breath.

If you look at 2016 by itself and focus only on the death, it certainly does look like a bad year. Just the names that pop into my head like Garry Shandling, David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Harper Lee, make me sad to think about it (not excluding Carrie Fisher or Debbie Reynolds in any way). But if it took their deaths to make a year bad, are we not disrespecting previous people who passed away?

You know, like shouldn’t 2015 be terrible because we lost Leonard Nimoy? Natalie Cole? B.B. King? Wes Craven?

And what about 2014? You know, where we said good-bye to Joan Rivers and Robin Williams? Those were two comedy geniuses, so is 2014 a terrible year, too?

How do we get a year that is not bad? Do we need a “Miracle Day” to last an entire year, like what we saw on the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, where no one died?

Or maybe we can stop focusing so much on death.

I know that’s funny coming from me. I’m a reporter, and it seems death is one of the biggest things we typically write about. But it shouldn’t be.

My maternal grandmother died in 1989. And while she looked like she was in her 80s thanks to diabetes and a few strokes, she was just three years older than Carrie Fisher. My mom, of course, was distraught, but there was something about the funeral that just made her so angry.

I was only 13, so I had no idea why, but she declared soon after that when she died, nobody better have a funeral for her. I didn’t get that – why would you not want to have a funeral?

As I grew up and sadly attended other funerals, I started to see why. People who almost forgot you existed while you were alive suddenly are the biggest grievers once you’re dead. They would talk about how the departed will no longer be able to do this or that … yet, did they even pay attention when they were doing it while they were alive?

Not everyone is artificial when someone dies, but some just can’t help it. Or, it takes a death to realize that you should’ve done more, said more … and by then it’s too late.

In my fiction work, which someday I might let people read, one thing I refuse to do is have the ubiquitous death scene. You know, where someone is drawing their last breaths, and everyone gathers around to hear what he or she has to say.

We have become so accustomed to that in films and television shows that we end up taking life for granted. The few people who have read my fiction are shocked that when I kill off someone, there are no good-byes. There is no touching moment, where some last words are eked out.

No. You’re totally alive one minute, and totally dead the next. Why? Because that’s reality. And knowing that reality, I have found myself treating those I love much differently. Like never ending a conversation in a fight, or without making sure they know that I love them. Every single time.

For me, it’s ensuring that I celebrate the people I love while they are alive. That is so key … we can’t wait for people to die before we celebrate them. Why not celebrate them now, while they still draw breath, and have the capacity to enjoy that celebration?

While it’s not getting the same level of attention as everything else, some outlets have shared since Carrie Fisher’s passing on Tuesday that they are appalled by the hypocrisy of news outlets that never gave the actress, writer and mental health advocate the time of day while she was alive, are now celebrating her at death like that never happened.

That really bugs me, because I can’t stand hypocrisy, and I also don’t believe that we should wait until someone dies before we make a big deal about them. Far too many times in the past, I’ve received nasty emails from people because my obituary on someone contains not just the great things that happened to them, but the warts, too. For them, I’m somehow disrespecting the dead by not following along whatever fictional narrative everyone else is creating.

But I am not going to succumb to hypocrisy. I cover everyone and everything the same way, whether they are alive or dead. If I was comfortable enough to write about your warts while you were alive, then I certainly will be comfortable enough to do it after your passing, too. Because while we are mourning your passing, we shouldn’t toss truth out the window.

Long story short, we all have our ways of grieving, even for those of whom we’ve never met but still had an impact on our lives. And we should get that.

But let’s try not to wait for someone to die or become gravely ill before we celebrate them, or blast them. They deserve to hear it just like anyone else … and it’s time that we focus more of our attention on the living than those who, sadly, are no longer with us.

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Michael Hinman

Michael Hinman

Managing Editor at GeekNation
Michael has spent more than 18 years of his way-long journalism career in entertainment reporting as the founder of SyFy Portal, which would become Airlock Alpha after he sold the SyFy brand to NBC Universal. He's based in New York City.