Dead or Alive

Eddie Van Halen's 20 Greatest Solos - Rolling Stone

Here are some people who are likely to die within the next five, ten, or fifteen years: the two remaining Beatles, the four original Rolling Stones, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin, as well as Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson and Brian Wilson; Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, Warren Beatty, and Faye Dunaway; Stephen King and Margaret Atwood; Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and former Canadian Prime Ministers Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, and Jean Chretien. There will certainly be some unexpected additions to that list, and maybe even a few exceptions, as well as millions of regular folks now age sixty or older, but the inevitable conclusion here – and everywhere – isn’t in doubt.

Somehow, though, it always takes us by surprise. Our media-saturated world makes mourning more convenient and more elaborate than ever, through the photographs, video footage, and online footprints of even the ordinary deceased, let alone of the entertainers and politicians whose lives are extensively documented. Previous generations might only have local birth, marriage, and burial records to mark anyone’s existence on earth, but today almost everyone gets an obituary, and rock icons and sports legends get somber news reports and commemorative editions of People. The aging of the Baby Boom means death has a big future ahead of it.

Not everyone gets to participate, however. People who live an unusually long time, like comedian Bob Hope (1903-2003) or movie stars Kirk Douglas (1916-2020) and Olivia DeHavilland (1916-2020), tend to outlast even their admirers, such that few contemporaries are left who can properly credit the achievements of their prime, whereas Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020) and Michael Jackson (1958-2009) still have many middle-aged fans who can pay them heartfelt tribute. That’s to say nothing of public figures who perish tragically at the height of their careers, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., James Dean, or Jimi Hendrix, for whom the shock of their demise, and the sense of their unrealized potential, becomes inextricable from their actual accomplishments. When (and how) we die can forever define how we lived.

What is death? While we’re on the subject, what is life? Whether for the famous or the unknown, what does it really matter what we do, or how long we get to do it for? There’s an old joke about the newly dead person’s ghost hovering around his own funeral and thinking, “If I knew how much I meant to everyone here, I wouldn’t have died.” Although it is natural to pay our respects to the departed, we may anticipate a coming fatigue of celebrity eulogies, as even the long life expectancies of the modern era eventually come to term. I dread the day sad news about Paul McCartney or Keith Richards breaks, but then it’s not like I won’t have seen it coming; the same goes for everyone I’ve ever known. Soon our screens and our newsstands will be crowded with faces and names from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, as a long roster of immortals and living legends become no longer immortal or living, as was always their destiny. Perhaps our ancestors, for whom death at all ages was more frequent and less noteworthy, knew better than we the value of our time here: “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass” (I Peter 1:24); “I go the way of all the earth” (I Kings 2:2); “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psalms 90:12); “One by one they were all becoming shades…His soul had approached that region where dwell the vasts hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence” (James Joyce, “The Dead,” 1914); and my favorite, from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” 1751: “Paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

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