Death, we are told by a most reliable source, can come like a thief in the night. We are all mortal and even stars perish. The year dies at the close of December 31. We wonder how the New Year’s child aged so much in just twelve months. As the present year comes to an end, we think hopefully of the following year. Yet, we cannot forget the rapid passing of 2016. Death is all-embracing, even to those glamorous beings who are identified as “stars”.
So many lives, vibrant on the screen, energetic on the playing field, refreshing as comedians, edifying as authors, inspirational as religious figures, and influential in the world of politics, have made their exits from the land of the living in the seventeenth year of the new millennium. Even stars flicker, falter, and fall. Nonetheless, we always experience a certain shock, along with a respectful sadness when we learn of their demise. Did not Gene Wilder, George Kennedy, Robert Vaughan, Hugh O’Brien, and Patty Duke appear to be immortal in celluloid? Arnold Palmer, Joe Garagiola, Mohamed Ali, and Gordie Howe, whose names were linked with “winning,” are now numbered among the numberless who have passed into the next world. Garry Shandling and Alan Young, who spread laughter, are now voiceless. Politics has said goodbye to Nancy Reagan, while Antonin Scalia will never write another brilliant legal tract. We also said farewell to Frank Sinatra, Jr., and Zsa Zsa Gabor. We envied all those celebrities who seemed larger than life. And now we realize that they were as mortal as anyone else. Our envy has turned to sympathy, a more properly human emotion. In death we are united with them. Death ends a life, though it does not close a relationship. We will miss their vitality. The strange and unexpected feeling comes over us that, at least for the present, we, the “non-celebrities,” have outlived the “stars”.
Death is the great leveler. Media immortality, if there can be such a thing, is not personal immortality. The various “stars” who performed so admirably on the world’s stage, beguiled and entertained us. But they were not beings who belonged to the stratosphere. They were basically just like us, as it turns out – imperfect, fragile, and destined to pass from the earth. Their deaths bring to mind two thoughts: that the distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity is trivial; that we must renew our commitment to finding meaning in our own lives and not in the accomplishments of others. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Gloria DeHaven, and Prince, will no longer entertain us live and in person. Super-celebrities Mother Angelica, Elie Wiesel, and John Glenn will be honored posthumously. We bid good-bye to Alan Thicke, Florence Henderson, and Alan Rickman, and Abe Vigoda, and return to our own day-to-day obligations with stronger dedication. Life belongs to the living. There are no stars, only we earthlings. We would do well to heed the words of G. K. Chesterton: “If the seeds of the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars.”
The existential philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev has stated that “Death is the most profound and significant fact of life, raising the least of mortals above the mean commonplaces of life.” If there were no death, he goes on to say, life would be meaningless and without hope. It is only through death that we can escape to a better world. “If life in our world continued forever, there would be no meaning in it.” “The meaning of death”, for Berdyaev, “is that there can be no eternity in time and that an endless temporal series would be meaningless.” People who merely reach for the stars are not reaching high enough.
Celebrities are called “Stars” because they populate a haven of popularity. Because of the electronic Media they can be seen from virtually any place and by nearly everyone. Like stars, they appear to be constantly shining. They are both above and beyond us. They seem to be, as the Ancients believed stars to be, “imperishable”. Their deaths, however, prove this image to be an illusion. In the final analysis, what we all yearn for is not stardom, but God’s Kingdom. Fame is a soap bubble. Christianity teaches us about the Resurrection, which is the victory of life over death. In addition, we are less likely to mistreat our neighbors when we see them as dying, even though that point of death belongs to an indeterminate moment in the future. Recognizing each person’s mortality elicits in us a certain sympathy that casts aside any possible rancor or envy that we might harbor. When we visit a person who is bedridden in a hospital, our thoughts and actions are loving and supportive. We fight each other in moments when we fail to see each other as we really are, namely, mortal beings who are destined to die.
The “bell tolls for Thee,” as John Donne has reminded us. We owe each other a profound sympathy inasmuch as we are all made of the same clay and are traveling toward that presently unknown moment when time and eternity intersect. Our attitude toward others would be more Christian if we saw them as dying, however slowly, and establish our relationship with them in accordance with both this fact and the reality of our own mortality.
We say adieu to our panoply of celebrities with the hope that their personal lives have earned them an eternity of everlasting joy with the God who is Life does not cease on the midnight hour. These former stars, like everyone else, are placed in the merciful hand of God.