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Why Do Celebrity Obituaries Cause Such Strong Feelings?

by Linnea Crowther

For every celebrity death that leaves millions of fans shocked and grieving — Kobe BryantAnthony BourdainCarrie FisherPrince — there’s always someone who wants to argue against that grief.

“Who cares?” the critic posts all over social media. “You never even met them, and they were a terrible person anyway! It’s dumb that you’re sad. Get over it — I don’t care about this death and you shouldn’t either.”

For those of us who have never quite been able to ignore pointless meanness, this criticism manages to make us feel even worse than we already did. Now, we’re grieving for a notable person we loved and we’re feeling like losers for doing it.

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But it’s not dumb or weird to mourn any loss. Grief is not always a rational emotion, and when we find ourselves weeping after hearing the news of an actor’s death, or a singer’s, we might not understand it, but we know our sadness is real.

So we cry. We listen to their songs or watch their movies. And, maybe most incomprehensible to the heckler, we read and share their obituaries.

Why exactly is that? What is the point of reading a celebrity’s obituary?

To answer that question, let’s start with why we read obituaries. More often than not, it’s because they provide important information.

When a relative, friend, colleague, or old schoolmate dies, we look to the obit for details:

  • *Is this person actually dead? And/or is this dead person the right dead person?
  • *When and where is the funeral?
  • *Where can I send flowers or make a memorial donation?
  • *Where can I share my condolences?

Obituaries are so incredibly useful, it’s no wonder they’re the go-to section in the newspaper for many readers.

Celebrity obituaries don’t serve quite the same purpose. When a celebrity dies, we’re not usually looking for funeral information or where to send flowers. We know it’s the right dead person by the photo and named splashed across countless headlines. We don’t need to verify by reading the details in the obit.

And yet we read celebrity obituaries anyway: Legacy’s celebrity obituaries are read by millions of people every year. The headline gives us all the news we need, given that we’re unlikely to be attending the celebrity’s funeral services, so why do we keep reading?

I believe it goes back to that love we have for our favorite stars, against all rationality. We feel a deep connection with the person who wrote the song that touched our hearts or starred in the television show we grew up with or led our favorite team to championships. Death can abruptly break that connection, but one way to put it back together is to spend some time immersing yourself in the details of that person’s life. Here are five ways we accomplish that by reading a celebrity’s obituary:

1. We discover new-to-us facts about the celebrity’s life.

Obituaries for notable people are typically a lot longer and go into substantially more depth than a death notice for the guy next door does. And unless you’re a superfan, you probably don’t know every detail of the lives of the celebrities you like. When you read their obituaries, you can learn things that might surprise or delight you, whether it’s a story from their childhood, a personal opinion they held, or a connection to someone or something you were unaware of. You’ll also feel nostalgia wash over you as you read about all the things you do remember fondly.

2. We make a connection with the celebrity.

Discovering those details after a death offers a powerful emotional connection to a favorite celebrity — one you might not have made if you had read the same stories while they were still living. You’re typically reading an obituary when the death is still relatively recent, the pain of it still raw in your mind. Finding points of connection, things you had in common or can commiserate with, can be deeply moving while you’re still saddened by their death.

3. We form a deeper understanding of the celebrity’s life and career.

You’ll often read the person’s own assessment of his or her life and career, as a good celebrity obituary tends to quote the celebrity. You’ll read what others have to say about that career, too, as the obituary quotes reviews of their work, memories from close friends, and tributes by notable admirers and critics.

4. We expand our knowledge of history.

Obituaries are often among the most useful historical documents, consulted by genealogists and historians alike as they seek out distant connections, but history isn’t all stuff that happened in a faraway, hazy past. Every celebrity obituary you read is a historical document too, and it can help you see how that notable person fits into the fabric of history. And when you browse multiple celebrity obituaries, or follow links from one to the next to the next, you start seeing the tapestry they were a part of, whether the picture it forms is of Old Hollywood glamour or early rock ‘n’ roll grit or Olympic glory.

5. We catch up on the dirt.

As many admirable reasons as there are that we read celebrity obituaries, we’d be lying if we pretended it was all a noble endeavor. There’s absolutely morbid curiosity in it, too. We turn to an obituary to learn the salacious details of a celeb’s life and death, their feuds, their scandals, their low points. It may not be noble — but it’s true. Humans are natural voyeurs, and an obituary handily sums up the iffy parts of a life just as much as the good parts.

Whatever the specifics of what you find in an individual celebrity obituary may be, the most important thing you’ll find is a way to keep experiencing your love for the person it’s honoring. That’s the nutshell of what obituaries do. Whether you’ve turned to an obituary for information, to honor a life, to learn new things, or any other reason, you’re keeping its subject’s spirit alive as you read.

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