How We Grieve Our Famous Dead


A woman with a tattoo of David Bowie cries in front of a mural of the British artist, painted by Australian street artist James Cochran, aka Jimmy C, following the January 11, 2016 announcement of Bowie's death. Justin Tallus/Getty Images
A woman with a tattoo of David Bowie cries in front of a mural of the British artist, painted by Australian street artist James Cochran, aka Jimmy C, following the January 11, 2016 announcement of Bowie's death. Justin Tallus/Getty Images

"We will never be rid of these stars. But I hope they live forever."

David Bowie, "The Stars Are Out Tonight"

Estimates say roughly 150,000 people die per day in the world. But celebrity deaths like David Bowie's (and now Alan Rickman's) have a much more noticeable effect on our public mourning process. These "parasocial relationships" come with their own attempts to navigate grief: remembering the deceased, demonstrating our devotion, and compensating for loss while rebuilding in the face of death.

Sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl coined "parasocial interaction" in the 1950s to define audiences feeling a close relationship with a celebrity with whom they have little personal interaction. These emotional bonds can be as strong as the ones we form with the people around us everyday. But parasocial relationships are characterized by the pleasure we get from engaging these celebrities and the enjoyment we share with other fans. This can lead to a sense of acceptance that not everyone has access to in their daily life.

Most us both grieve for the dead and consume mass media. When someone in your life dies, your process of mourning helps maintain and reconstruct who you are. But in a parasocial relationship you're not invited to the funeral. You're not privy to the disposal of the body either. You have none of the usual outlets to express your emotions. So in a community of mass consumption, how do we process death?

In the case of David Bowie, maybe you listened to his music repeatedly. Or you watched his videos and films. With social media you can do this while you simultaneously commiserate with others.

Fans mourn outside the 2009 memorial service held in Los Angeles for singer Michael Jackson.
Fans mourn outside the 2009 memorial service held in Los Angeles for singer Michael Jackson.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

"By interacting with others who also had such a parasocial relationship with the deceased," Purdue University communications professor Glenn Sparks said of the phenomenon in 2012, "we get to engage in a kind of mediated family that collectively gets to express its big group emotion to the loss."

Together we take to the internet, weirdly bringing together our public consumption with what would normally be a very private mourning ritual.

The boundaries become even blurrier when we use what professors Scott K. Radford and Peter H. Bloch refer to as "introjection" and "incorporation" to cope with the loss of a celebrity. Introjection involves reliving our experiences of the celebrity. Remember when Bowie called Ricky Gervais a "pathetic little fat man" on "Extras"? Or when he threw that baby up in the air in "Labyrinth"? That kind of thing. 

Incorporation on the other hand is when we try to compensate for the death by acquiring material objects to remember the celebrity. Maybe you just bought Bowie's final album "Blackstar"? Or how about some Crocs to remember the Thin White Duke by?

Taken a step further, what if you could acquire one of Bowie's own possessions? Maybe a guitar pick from his "Heathen" tour? Cultural scholar Russell W. Belk calls this "sacralization," as if the objects contained the deceased's essence. Such items become even more "contaminated" depending on how much physical contact the celebrity had with them. Knowing this, memorabilia sellers try to take advantage of the high emotional levels people experience directly after a celebrity's death. Fans in turn are driven to seek this memorabilia to exhibit their grief in public.

While this all may sound somewhat pathological or obsessive, if we're being honest, in today's society it's almost as universal as death itself. These are all healthy attempts to navigate the mourning process. Maybe they are even unearthing deeper emotional complexities. How else are we supposed to cope with thousands of people dying around us every day, when we can do nothing about it?