Michael Jackson's Death: Does Fame Trump Faith?

While Michael Jackson's death could highlight funeral rituals associated with a particular faith, it may ultimately demonstrate the power of celebrity as a new kind of sacred.

BY: Professor Gary Laderman

 

Although plans to put Michael Jackson's body on display for public viewing have now been changed, it is not surprising that this option was given serious consideration. Regardless of his private beliefs at the time of his death, Jackson is embedded in a larger religious culture in which fans long for one last look and intimate moment with their adored celebrity saint.  Muslims do not embalm and display the body; Orthodox Jews and many conservative Jews will not either; Christians of most stripes, on the other hand, are more comfortable with public viewing of the dead as an integral element of funeral rituals. But more significant than any religious tradition is Jackson's standing in the public eye, and his celebrity status as more than an idol in the pop culture landscape.

Although Jackson is a cherished member of his close-knit family, as sister Janet Jackson reminded everyone at the BET awards, he is also a part of a larger family of fans who made his success and adored him for his public entertaining contributions to their lives--contributions that were more than just entertaining songs and diverting forms of popular culture. For many people these artistic, aesthetic, moral contributions were sacred in every sense of that word.

The moment of death and the public response to the life cut short called forth religious behaviors and emotions and attachments that put this sacred quality into sharp relief. Think of Valentino and the riots surrounding the funeral home in NY that gave the public what they wanted, a last look at their venerated screen icon; or recall the death and funeral ceremonies for Elvis Presley, whose drug ravaged body was also embalmed and given over to the public who made the pilgrimage to Graceland. Only a few celebrities achieve this level of adoration, and their public funeral ceremonies and celebrations transcend any specific denominational or traditional peculiarities. Instead, whether Christians, Jews, Buddhists, atheists, or agnostics participate in the viewing, they are all involved in a celebrity religious culture in which all agree on the sacred standing of the shared object of devotion because of the power of their memories, the impact of his music, the values drawn from the life cut short.

This funeral, and the ceremonies that will likely take place around the globe without the physical man present but with his music and spirit enlivening the festivities, suggest that sacred celebrity in some cases can trump religious tradition in ritual activities. I am sure we will see how these activities capture and convey collective sentiments connecting communities of diverse fans into one focused throng expressing their loss and love for the beloved celebrity.

Dr. Gary Laderman is Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University.  He is also the editor of  Religion Dispatches and author of the book, Sacred Matters.
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