Death Watch

A scene from Six Feet Under

Guessing whether a celebrity is dead or alive has become something of a modern-day parlor game.

As if it wasn’t enough that we’re obsessed with celebrities’ lives -- their breakups! their box office grosses! their teeth! -- we’re also obsessed with their deaths. Or more accurately, with their seeming ability to cheat death.

Perhaps this should come as no surprise. After all, we treat celebrities as modern-day gods and goddesses, and immortality was the defining characteristic of the Greek gods. And like those mythological gods who imbibed nectar and ambrosia to renew the divine blood in their veins to ensure their immortality, we’ve granted today’s celebrities special means for avoiding the fate that befalls us mere mortals.

So, how do celebrities cheat death? Let me count the ways.

1.Most obviously, artist-celebrities live on in immortality through their work. We take it for granted, but the very notion that Shakespeare’s plays are routinely read and performed four centuries after they were written is nothing short of astonishing. Likewise, how many times a day is a Beethoven symphony broadcast on classical radio stations around the world? How many people have viewed Monet’s paintings? Can you even imagine a time when Pride and Prejudice is out of print?

2. Celebrities live on through works about their lives and their accomplishments. Search Franklin Delano Roosevelt on, and you’ll come up with an astounding 7,838 listings of books and DVDs -- and even a symphony composed in his memory. Even when the portrayal is mixed, as in 1984’s Oscar winner Amadeus, where Mozart is presented as both a genius and a vulgarian, the point is that his life was still deemed important enough to place on Broadway and the silver screen 200 years after his death

3. Famous recording artists live on through covers of their songs by other artists and alternative versions and reinterpretations of their work. Recently, this trend has taken a more radical turn. Last June, Rufus Wainwright restaged Judy Garland’s famed 1961 Carnegie Hall concert in its entirety, at Carnegie Hall, no less. The recent release of an album of mashed-up Beatles songs, Love, is another extreme example of breathing new life into old songs and performances. (Mind you, while two members of the Beatles are still alive, incredibly, the band "died" nearly four decades ago.)

4. Not only do some top celebrities earn more money in a month than most of us can hope to make in a lifetime, some even make more money in death than in life (although, admittedly, they themselves are not around to enjoy it). As Forbes reported last October, the 13 icons on its sixth annual Top Earning Dead Celebrities list collectively earned $247 in the previous 12 months. The top five were Kurt Cobain, Elvis, Charles M. Schulz, John Lennon, and... Albert Einstein?!

5. Perhaps the most famous of all celebrities are those who died young and gorgeous and therefore live on through endless displays of their young and gorgeous iconic images: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, JFK, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac, among others.

6. Here’s the kicker, the ultimate way celebrities cheat death: Some of them are so much a part of our lives that it simply does not compute that they are dead, and therefore we still believe that they’re alive. This phenomenon is quite similar to the concept, if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound? Likewise, if a celebrity dies and we still believe he is alive, did he really breathe his last breath?

For each of us, the celebrities we may be in denial about differ, depending on their imprint on our consciousness or, in some cases, their sheer longevity. For instance, I’m not entirely sure if Katherine Hepburn is dead or alive. Same with Johnny Carson. And Fred Astaire. They’ve always been there, and so it only seems right that they’ll continue on, forever.

Naturally, we’re envious of celebrities’ death-defying powers. And just as naturally, the antidote for our envy is for us to cut celebrities down to size. Sometimes, this is a subconscious act. For instance, we’ve probably all "killed off" a celebrity who is very much alive, believing that he or she has already died. (Remember the great Mark Twain witticism, "The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated"?). Have you ever seen The New York Times Magazine’s "The Lives They Lived" issue, or watched the "In Memorium" segment of the Oscars and thought to yourself, "So-and-so just died this year? I could swear she’s been dead since the early '90s."

My sister and I recently debated whether the director and actor Paul Mazursky was dead or alive. On the one hand, he wasn’t that old, and I thought I’d seen him recently on a popular TV show -- maybe The Sopranos? On the other hand, one of us had a sneaking suspicion that he really was dead.

Well, it will undoubtedly console Mr. Mazursky and his family and friends to know that he is, indeed, alive. The likely reason we were in doubt is because the character he played on the television drama Once & Again had died on the show and we mistakenly transferred this death to him. (By the way, if anyone at Buena Vista Home Entertainment is paying attention, please release the Season 3 DVDs already!)

Guessing whether a celebrity is dead or alive has become something of a modern-day parlor game. There’s even a website, aptly named, that not only answers the question at hand about any celebrity but goes so far as to categorize celebrity lives and deaths by "died in the last six months", "died before age 30", "people alive over 85", and so forth.

Then, there’s the morbid speculation about who’s likely to go next. I hear that WRKO-AM sometimes predicts that so-and-so "won’t be down for breakfast". And, just this morning on KISS-FM in Boston, on the "Matty in the Morning" show, Matty and the other radio personalities placed bets on whether Elizabeth Taylor, Jerry Lewis, or Olivia de Havilland would be the first to meet their maker.

But even if we’re envious of celebrities and we occasionally feel the need to put them in their place, I believe that, in our heart of hearts, we want them to be immortal, we need them to be immortal. Maybe the only thing we fear more than dying is not being remembered after we’re gone. And so we do what we can to achieve life after death. Some of us have children. Some of us write a memoir. Some of us have hospital wings named after us, others, a star. And many of us look to the stars here on earth -- perhaps they, at least, can attain some sort of immortality.

So please don’t tell me whether Katherine Hepburn’s dead or alive. I believe she’s alive, and therefore she is.

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