perjantai 7. tammikuuta 2011

Dying with style

(Blogging in English is a New Year’s resolution… kirjoitan edelleen suomeksikin, mutta tutkimuksessa kansainvälisyys on tunnetusti sama asia kuin englannin kieli.)

Lately I have stumbled upon many books about deaths of famous people or deaths that have made the person famous. The way people die may even be more crucial to their posthumous image than their life. Sometimes this is very negative to the bereaved like in the case of suicide. The life of the deceased may be shortened to the fact that the person decided to end his or her life by own hand. Sometimes the cause of death may be, if not particularly wished for, at least more easily accepted like in the case of a soldier’s death in a patriotic family.

In the old days kings and queens actually had power and their deaths meant an heir to the throne must be found. Sometimes the heir even eased the predecessor’s passage to the halls of Heaven. Death was a political question and of course it still is. Killing the wrong kind of politician still is quite popular in some parts of the world. I wonder why random car and suicide bombs have replaced it in many cases; perhaps because it is harder to put into action.

Åke Ohlmarks book Konungen är död lists the deaths of all Swedish kings from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The author seems to be quite reliable as an academic historian, yet the copy I bought from a second-hand bookshop in Stockholm is filled with angry pencil scribbling. In any case, the book certainly gives an idea on the various ways a king can die. Some deaths are socially and politically useful centuries later, like the worship Charles XII still gets from the extreme right in Sweden.

Dead Famous by Gordon Kerr takes this grave matter even more lightly and entertainingly. His examples are from all walks of life: the only requirement seems to have been the fact that the person was already famous and his or her death was interesting to the general public. And of course that there is a story in it. Conspiracy theories and commemorations follow the famous dead. Elvis and Princess Diana and must be the most obvious examples of this. Luckily few people report seeing the Princess alive somewhere. She haunts her family well enough without it.

The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars is somehow more serious and even humane in its approach to famous deaths (don't let the subtitle "Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches" fool you). Perhaps this is because the writer, Jeremy Simmonds really loves music and does not want talented people to die. Whatever the reason, this book is, like the others, very useful as a reference book. And of course, there is no point in telling Kurt Cobain shot himself without telling why we should be interested in him in the first place. Most of the artists in this encyclopedia are from the Anglophone world of course, but so are the widest known rock stars anyway.

All of these stories of famous dead people are not so much fun. It’s particularly tragic when people are not first and foremost remembered because of their work, or their death shadows it, like Marilyn Monroe or Sylvia Plath. And does John Lennon’s death relate to his life in any way? What about those poor kids who wanted to "live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse"? Who even wanted to die because that way they would be remembered forever - at war or on stage?

I was asked once, unfortunately in public, how I’d wish to be remembered, how immortal I’d like to be. Some people seem to think of that, hence the concept of post-self. Since I’m not terminally ill or having Napoleonic delusions the question is not very acute. Many people say they do not wish to die slowly and become demented during the process. Is the only way to avoid being remembered as a senile old woman to do something so remarkable no one will notice the state you're in? And what would that be if you’re not a rock star or a monarch?

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