Julie Burchill

Daft celebrity mourners have made 2016 the year of the ‘Tearleader’

Daft celebrity mourners have made 2016 the year of the 'Tearleader'
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Despite my 'difficult' reputation, I am a cheery cove in real life, all the more so as I get older. But in true Dorian Grey style, I only stay this way by letting my intolerant side rule the roost on Facebook. Every morning my hot little hands positively itch to unfollow, defriend and block: a day which passes without binning a few dim bulbs is a day wasted.

I’ve had an especially good run of it this year, as two things in particular have acted as cracking prompts for my 'negging' narrative. One has been the showing of bad attitude on the part of many Remain-supporting mates. I don’t expect everyone to be a bold Brexiteer like me, but I do expect people to be good losers. The other is a phenomenon which my husband, with admirable masculine brusqueness, calls ‘tearleading’; that of large groups of people getting together to competitively mourn dead celebrities. So savagely amused was I by the hysteria which swept Facebook this year on the death of Leonard Cohen that I was inspired to finally create my first meme; a laconic-looking Len, above him the words: 'You OK hun?' and beneath: 'Now you've got something to cry about'.

Am I cold and heartless? Yes, but it’s more than that. I’ve always known that people I’m fond of will die, and not handily hang about forever in some sort of revenant state in order to spare my tears. Over the past two decades, I’ve dealt with the deaths of the people I loved most - my parents and my son and my in-laws - with a decent deal of stoicism, so it would be seven sorts of weird for me to start tearing my hair and rending my garments in the street over the cessation of strangers, no matter how talented. Such common sense takes flight, however, when faced with the sumptuous smorgasbord of social media lachrymosity. I adore Facebook - as a hyper-social lone wolf I find it the perfect fit - but you know how dogs always start each other off? First one barks itself daft, then they all do. Facebook is like that - the hounds of grief combined with a cat’s chorus. And I won’t even start on the hearse-chasing circle-jerk that is Twitter.

After Howard Marks’ death at 70 (that’s 70 - not 7, or 17) I even saw someone on Facebook wail that ‘the slaughter of a generation’ was taking place, presumably because David Bowie, Ronnie Corbett, and that fat bird who designs big buildings also shuffled off this mortal coil this year. I know it’s naughty, but in answer to this I posted a Facebook status saying how much I miss Pinky & Perky, whose creator did indeed pass away earlier this year:

‘They may have lived like pigs - but more importantly, they gave us the freedom to be Us. Farewell, then, porky puppet pair - we shall not see your like again. There are two new sausage-shaped stars in Heaven now.’

Then came the deaths of Victoria Wood and Prince - such an unlikely pairing, her all sleeves-up no-airs common-sense and him a sex-crazed God-bothering space-cadet, but you could have switched their names in a lot of the online ululating and not known the difference. And the more I read, the sadder I became - not because of the deaths of Wood and Prince, both of whom I mildly admired, but because of the near-fatal injuries done to logic and language as part of the pay-as-you-go mourning process.

Modern celebrity death is a perfect storm of sorrow. Most of the mourners have no religion - and as G.K. Chesterton said: ‘When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.’ The hair-trigger shock-waves of social media. A generation who thought it would be young forever being amazed when their doctor diagnoses nothing more curable than ‘wear and tear’ for their aches and pains. But in the act of public mourning, they often shamelessly contradict what their fallen idols would have wanted - privacy. Joan Collins was only told of her sister Jackie’s cancer two weeks before the six-year-old illness took her. While David Bowie not only kept his illness a private matter but also left instructions that he be cremated in secret, as was Prince. This being the final wish of these people, is public grief really appropriate?

The Year of Tearleading is coming to a pleasing close, though; last week saw the death at a whopping 104 of E.R. Braithwaite, the great writer, causing my heartless chums and I to take to Facebook with such tributes as ‘Taken too soon - I hate you, 2016!'. Today’s news of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s passing - 99 years old, nine times married and originator of such lavishly callous quips as ‘I never hated a man enough to give him his diamonds back’, ‘A man in love is incomplete until he has married - then he's finished’ and ‘How many husbands have I had? You mean apart from my own?’ - will be equally hard work for the Tearleaders to spin to their own sentimental ends. And the bone-chilling, heart-rending situation in Syria, where the slaughter of innocents trapped between ignorant armies continues, should be enough to bring an end to any amount of petulant eye-piping over dead celebs.

There’s a perfectly logical reason why celebrity deaths have increased; until the 1950s, only film stars, politicians, opera singers and monarchs were really famous. Then rock and roll and television came along, and the number of famous people created each year increased vastly. The thing is, it won't stop - because of this phenomenon, more famous people will now keep dying; we’ve reached the termination tipping point. At some point, unless we wish to find ourselves having back-to-back attacks of the collective vapours as a culture, we might care to turn it down a notch. For tears are sometimes an inappropriate response to death - when a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully, or just completely, the correct response to death's perfect punctuation mark is gratitude. Unless, the Lord forfend, you’re actually tearleading for reasons which are nothing to do with the deceased, but are actually more about you and your own fear that your life has not matched up to your dreams?