It’s probably never diplomatic to speak of funerals as good news. Still, a silver lining in last weekend’s return of Debby Reynolds to the dust from which she came is that it should put an end to the necrotic cataloguing of celebrities who kicked it in 2016. Given that we’re already two weeks into 2017, surely she must be the last of last year’s laid low. Mustn’t she?
Saying so conveys neither personal slight against the memory of Ms. Reynolds nor insensitivity to her family, sadly coping with the death of her daughter Carrie Fisher only a day earlier. It only underscores how far we’ve sunk into the practice of macabre public ululating over the great, the good, and even those relative mediocrities whose names we’re pretty sure we used to think we needed to know.
As with all such queasifying modern habits, I again squarely blame the British Royal Family. To avoid opening up a wholly different catalogue – i.e., the House of Windsor’s manifold sins and wickedness, to use the immortal words of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer – let us summarize it in a name: Diana.
It was with Diana, after all, that the tsunami of post-mortem ersatz public ki-yi-ying began. And, like her, it has not ended well, primarily because it has not ended yet, maudlin pop tune warbling about metaphorical candles in the wind notwithstanding.
In fairness, although Diana unearthed for the world a whole new form of celebrity shallowness, the vast majority of people at least knew how to spell her name. The same cannot be said of the aforementioned Ms. Reynolds, whose first name I deliberately misspelled in the opening sentence as a rather undiplomatic test of who would know and who would bother to check (as I had to). Again, this is no put down of the late star of the Unsinkable Molly Brown. It is purely a matter of her last being a genuine star at about the time the physical universe was getting over its Big Bang.
But if Reynolds no longer mattered enough to justify the noise that accompanied her departure, our current fetish for the reputational exhumation of the immortally exhausted is indeed a telling sign of the times. Much of it results, I’m convinced, from the atrophying of the great art of obituary writing, which itself is a sorrowful offshoot of the death of newspapers. The best obituary writers understood in their bones that their craft relied on telling stories primarily about people who had passed on only after they had passed at least one of three stages in life: 1) old 2) very old 3) running out the clock.
What the writers had to do very precisely was avoid inviting the reader to pretend to know who the subject of the obituary was. They were obliged instead to present the facts and stories of a life as fresh news recovered from the rime of time. In other words, the journalist had to write history as journalism on the run.