When someone posts a David Bowie memorial tribute to Instagram five minutes after sharing a picture of pizza, is that bad taste or just an attempt to incorporate grieving into modern life? Can a person be sad for the loss of a musical hero and hungry for pizza at the same time? Are funeral selfies sincere or simply narcissistic and rude? These are among the issues pondered by host Mike Rugnetta in a video for PBS Idea Channel called “Is It Okay To Mourn Celebrity Death Online?” The video begins by answering its own title question in the affirmative: Yes, says Rugnetta, it is wholly appropriate and natural to incorporate smartphones and social media into the grieving process. And, yes, fans can publicly grieve for celebrities, even without knowing them personally.
The video is essentially an illustrated editorial in response to several grief-shaming articles that have appeared in The Huffington Post, Business Insider, and The New York Review Of Books. These articles, all written by angry adults, have accused selfie-taking young people of grieving in the “wrong” way that makes death feel “cheap.” But Rugnetta argues that the internet has now woven itself so fully into the fabric of modern life that it’s inevitably a part of the grieving process as well. People are going to take to social media in times of sadness; America is a nation in deep denial about death, and making grief some private and shameful thing one must go through alone, out of the public eye, only makes the problem worse. People in mourning need support from others, and social media is an effective way to get it. Young people are navigating the world of death using the technology available to them. And what about mourning celebrities, those whom we do not personally know? Rugnetta has some thoughts on that, too.
I’m allowed to feel sad and tweet about it. I didn’t know David Bowie. But at times it felt remarkably like David Bowie knew me. And what’s more important, at times it felt like he knew who I wanted to be. This, I’m sure, is true for people who mourn Oscar De La Renta, Amy Winehouse, Andy Warhol, Glenn Frey, Harper Lee, Princess Diana, and John Lennon. At their passing and forever after.