30 August 2007
A Note on Death Anniversaries
The news media and the people of Great Britain are making a big deal of the tenth anniversary of the death of Diana Spencer, the erstwhile Princess of Wales. Many who mourn the anniversary believe that Diana was a person of great accomplishments, or at least great promise. For my part, I notice that the commemoration fits into a pattern. You may wonder, if so many think Diana a great woman, why few seem to mark her birthday. Consider the case of Elvis Presley: his birthday is noted, especially by cable movie channels that program his movies that day, but certainly the anniversary of his death is the bigger occasion for his fans. Go back further and ask how many Americans know John F. Kennedy's birthday, compared to those who know the day he died. Compare all these examples to the civic honors heaped on Washington, Lincoln and Dr. King on the approximate occasion of their birthdays. Why, in most modern cases, are people more inclined to commemorate the death days of their idols rather than the birthdays? I think it goes back to Kennedy's assassination and the commonplace assertion that people would always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. People today can probably tell you where they were and what they were doing on 16 August 1977 or 31 August 1997, or possibly even 8 December 1980. Of course, their location and activities are not the objects of remembrance on the anniversaries. Instead, these little cultural holidays are all about how you reacted to the great one's demise and recreating how you felt at those terrible moments. Death anniversaries, for celebrities at least, aren't so much commemorations of great lives as they are occasions for people to wallow in memories of their own sensations. They are phenomena that won't outlast their founding generations, leaving future generations to determine whether the objects of such morbid adoration deserve commemoration in their own rights.