At the end of each year, the media brings to our attention a chronicle of movie celebrities whose lives came to an end during that particular year. The list of these celebrities who passed from this world in 2014 is, as it always is, disquieting. So many lives, so vibrant on the screen, now extinguished. We always experience a certain shock, along with a piercing sadness when we learn of their demise. Did not Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Lauren Bacall and Sid Caesar appear to be immortal in celluloid? Did David Brenner, Joan Rivers and Bob Hoskins have any premonition that their lease on life would suddenly expire? We watched Eli Wallach, Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis, and believed that they were endowed with un-diminishable vitality. We envied all those actors and actresses who seemed larger than life. And now we know that they were not larger than life. Our envy has changed to sorrow. We are left with the strange and unexpected feeling that we, the “non-celebrities,” have outlasted them.
Death is the great leveler. Celluloid immortality, if there be such a thing, is not personal immortality. Movie “stars” beguiled and entertained us. But they were not beings who belonged to the heavens. They were just like us, as it turns out: mortal, fragile, destined to pass from the earth. Their deaths bring to mind two thoughts: that the distinction between celebrity and non-celebrity is trivial; that we must renew our commitment to finding meaning in our own lives. We bid goodbye to Maria von Trapp, Mike Nichols, Elaine Stritch and Polly Bergen, and return to our own day-to-day obligations with stronger dedication. Life belongs to the living. There are no stars, only us earthlings. These deceased celebrities, like everyone else, are placed in the merciful hand of God.
The existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev has stated, “Death is the most profound and significant fact of life, raising the least of mortals above the mean commonplaces of life.” If there were no death, he goes on to say, life would be meaningless and without hope. It is only through death that we can escape to a better world. “If life in our world continued forever, there would be no meaning in it.”
“The meaning of death,” for Berdyaev, “is that there can be no eternity in time and that an endless temporal series would be meaningless.” People who merely reach for the stars are not reaching high enough.
Cinematic favorites are called “stars” because they populate the heaven of Hollywood and therefore seem to be above us. They appear to be, as the ancients believed stars to be, “imperishable.” Their deaths prove this image to be an illusion. What we all yearn for is not stardom, but eternity. Fame is a soap bubble.
Christianity teaches us about the Resurrection, which is the victory of life over death. In addition, we are less likely to mistreat our neighbors when we see them as dying, even though that point of death belongs to an indeterminate moment in the future. Recognizing each person’s mortality elicits in us a certain sympathy that casts aside any possible rancor or envy that we might harbor. When we visit a person who is bedridden in a hospital, our thoughts and actions are loving and supportive. We fight each other in moments when we fail to see each other as we really are, namely, mortal beings who are destined to die.
The “bell tolls for Thee,” as John Donne has reminded us. We owe each other a profound sympathy inasmuch as we are all made of the same clay and are journeying toward that presently unknown moment when time and eternity intersect. Our attitude toward others would be more Christian if we saw them as dying and established our relationship with them in accordance with both this fact and the fact of our own mortality.
We say adieu to our screen celebrities with the hope that their personal lives have earned them an eternity of everlasting joy with the God who is Life in its totality.
Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth & Charity Forum.