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Plumbing a rush to mourn celebrity icons

By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 07/21/99

They were standing so close they could have touched, Sharon Shepherd said. She and John F. Kennedy Jr. were at the same event six years ago, and she wanted more than anything to talk to him. But he was too famous, too handsome, too close, and she was too afraid. She didn't speak. She's since regretted it.

On Tuesday, Shepherd, 45, was free to say so in a message to Kennedy himself, carefully penned in the condolence book at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library. From now on, the Dorchester resident wrote, ''I guess I can talk to you anytime I feel like it.''

Such is the irony of Kennedy's death, the passage of a man who was larger than life when he lived. In passing, Kennedy has grown even larger, yet smaller, too - he is farther away, yet closer, than before.

Like Diana, princess of Wales, Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, and James Dean, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s death placed him in a pantheon of icons for the celebrity age: intently watched in life, publicly mourned in death.

In messages in the condolence books, or impromptu shrines like the one outside the Kennedy Library, or even in the collective viewing of television news, people draw closer to these figures when they die, said Caryl Rivers, a journalism professor at Boston University. They also draw closer to one another.

''This is one of these natural moments which become sort of community-binding events,'' she said. ''Since we have, in our community, less sense of community ... We feel like they're our friends. And we almost act like they're our friends.''

And many people treat their deaths as if friends had died - almost.

On Tuesday, more than 1,000 people signed the condolence book, some of them after waiting in line for an hour, Kennedy Library officials estimated. Others left flowers, candles, cards, and balloons at a shrine outside the library's entrance. Many addressed their messages directly to Kennedy or to his family. Shepherd said she started her condolence book note the way she'd address a buddy: ''Well, John-John...''

And several said they felt better, relieved, at the chance to say goodbye this way.

''I just felt I needed to do something,'' said Teresa Egan, 35, of Dorchester, who brought flowers.

For Bostonians, the Kennedy Library served as an obvious site for that. And the staff was prepared for the deluge, said spokesman Tom McNaught. The library had set up a similar book, and had drawn a similar response, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died.

If there isn't an obvious place to mourn, people seek shrines where they can. When Diana died in a car wreck two summers ago, some Bostonians chose a Newbury Street boutique, Bjoux.

Bjoux's owner, Barbara Jordan, had purchased three of the princess's famous gowns at a Christie's auction, months before Diana's death. After the car crash, Jordan hung the dresses in her store window. She was stunned when, for days, people left flowers and notes on the sidewalk outside.

''We'd come in the morning and there were more of them,'' Jordan said. ''It's like tying the yellow ribbon on.''

Indeed, the public mourning serves a spiritual purpose, said Jacqueline Landry, a chaplain at Harvard University. In the face of death, she said, people feel ''a need to ritualize - not only personally, but in a community.''

In fact, the signing of a book and the gift of flowers are acts that mirror funeral rituals, Landry said. They come as a natural response.

But outside the structure and liturgy of a synagogue, church, or mosque, that kind of hurried mourning isn't necessarily healthy, said the Rev. Anthony Campbell, preacher in residence at Boston University.

''It doesn't do the heavy lifting of faith or belief or grief,'' he said. ''It's kind of microwave religion. You can do it in a hurry and be done with it.''

And that could be the way people like it: a minimal helping of grief or reflection. Society's reaction to the death of someone famous speaks to the way it deals with death itself.

''We are a death-denying culture,'' Landry said. ''We don't have, really, the words for it, the fabric.''

When he discusses death with his students, Boston University professor Michael Corgan said, they look at him strangely, as if they're far too young to consider such a subject. But he points out that 50 years ago, before advances in medicine, more of them would have experienced the death of a sibling or a friend, somebody equally young.

Today, Rivers said, because the deaths of young people are rare, they often shock. Because of ''that sense of forever young and unfulfilled,'' she said, it's easy for early death to give birth to a myth.

What makes people cling to icons, she said, is the youth they represent: the beauty of Diana or Monroe, the thwarted promise of Dean or Lennon.

It's not like losing a hero - a Martin Luther King or Robert F. Kennedy - Rivers said.

''Heroism demands distance,'' and modern culture offers none, Rivers said. Instead, people see John F. Kennedy Jr. flunk the bar exam, fight with his girlfriend, rollerblade, and ''we think we know him.''

But losing a celebrity isn't the same thing as losing a relative. And it isn't the same as losing a leader - a figure with historical heft, like Kennedy's father. When a cultural icon dies, the consequences aren't so great, Rivers said. Time passes; attention wanes. Public shrines become private mementoes.

The Kennedy Library will offer its condolence book to the family, McNaughton said. Jordan collected the flowers left for Princess Diana and made a dry arrangement. She keeps it in her home, to remember.

The public will remember, too, Rivers said. But not every day. ''If you lose a television icon,'' she said, ''life goes on.''


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