Celebrity Deaths and the Future of American Religion

Where is Lou Reed? I know he's dead, but I mean now that he is dead, where is he? Heaven? Hell? Purgatory? Heading toward the light? Nowhere? Everywhere? I ask this because so many of the obits and essays and celebrations and testimonials speak of Reed's accomplishments, music, style, and so on while alive, but not a word about the afterlife, or the non-afterlife.

Perhaps this is another sign of how irrelevant religion is in twenty-first century America. After all, if religion is about anything, it's about death, and the afterlife, and transcendence of death and the meaning of life. Reed's death clearly had a major impact and represents a significant loss to many people who identified with the rock star, or loved his music, or appreciated his cultural presence, and so the religious meaning of his death is absent, with the popular response an exercise in secularity and atheistic perspectives on mortality.

Perhaps though, on the other hand, we are witnessing something else about religion in the widespread and heartfelt mourning and remembrances, something about the changing contours of religious cultures and the messy mixing up, and mashing up, of the sacred and the secular. What I would suggest is that religion is highly relevant, and present, in the public responses to the death of Lou Reed, as well as so many other dead celebrities from the last 100 years or so.

Even though traditional religious traditions put a premium on postmortem journeys and transformations to help adherents make sense of the inevitable, unavoidable reality of death, new forms of religious culture take a different tack, and focus on a different set of values than what we are used to seeing and hearing in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on. These new religious cultures are mixing with and in some ways replacing older traditions, and providing Americans with a radically different set of conceptions and practices to make sense of death -- that most religious of human experiences -- in a meaningful way.

So let me be blunt: the cult of celebrity that is prevalent and powerful in society today is one example of a new religious culture, and when the death of a celebrity occurs, whether as a result of old age or a young life cut short by tragedy, the way we talk about it and the rituals we use in the aftermath are just as sacred as sitting shiva or giving a sermon. The parallels between the cult of saints in early Christianity and the cult of celebrity in the age of American empire are obvious, with dead celebrities glorified and idolized for their power (which comes from wealth, fame, and creativity for celebs; and for the saints, power comes from sacrifice, dedication, and faith), and ability to make a mark in the intimate, personal lives of the faithful and teach persuasive moral messages. For the cult of saints, of course, that message was centered on God and Jesus in instructing followers about the meaning of life and how to live it; for the cult of celebrities, less obviously theological but religious through and through, that message is centered on the values of self-expression, mass appeal, and stardom.

From Rudolph Valentino to Tupac; Marilyn to Reed, dead celebrities inculcate moral values that are not trivial and artificial, but cosmologically profound in ways that can pierce the soul of fans and fanatics. It's not the state of the celebrity soul that is at stake at the time of death, but social standing and a body of work -- or just a beautiful body -- that make death meaningful and consequential for the living. Most people tend to think real religion is primarily concerned with the spirit, and what happens after the last breath (judgment or rebirth; liberation or unification). But religion doesn't need to assert a spiritual afterlife or a posthumous personal journey to be effective. Religious life thrives on more material, this-worldly matters, and the sacred cultures of dead celebrities keep the focus on this side of the great divide (valued measured not only in postmortem profits).

We live in a celebrity-driven culture, with the rise of popular entertainment and social media fueling our obsessions with idols and superstars. Celebrities will come and go, but they will go with more frequency in the years ahead, as generational transitions, demographic shifts, and inevitable tragedies bring more and more dead celebrities into our midst to remind us of mortality, set aspirations and ideals to follow, and teach lessons about what counts in our own brief, often non-celebrity lives.