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#RIP: The way we mourn celebrity deaths

  • When a star dies, why does the Internet explode with condolences, memories and #RIPs?
  • One expert says the answer lies in our obsession with death
#RIP: The way we mourn celebrity deaths

On Monday, the Web was still mourning the untimely death of actor Paul Walker. The 40-year-old "Fast & Furious" franchise star passed away on Saturday following a car accident, and his fans flocked to social media sites to pay their respects. 

When a celebrity dies, the mourning process is essentially formulaic: There's the natural doubt, the sad confirmation, followed by public mourning. Those close to the celebrity are asked for their reactions and memories, retrospectives are sewn together from the star's achievements and life events.

The death is a headline on the gossip site, a constant refrain for the news channels. In all fairness, the conversations are usually positive, respectful -- after all, these stars are real people, with families and loved ones and private lives. But while their deaths are tragic, why do we, as a public, feel the need to mourn?

Extra: Vin Diesel's Impromptu speech at Paul Walker's private memorial 

'We tend to go overboard'

Jawn Murray, an entertainment journalist and pop culture expert, says it all ties back to our innate fascination with death.

"There are three topics that Americans are fascinated with," he told HLN. "Birth, death and marriages. And we tend to go overboard with all of them. You hear 'Bridezilla' stories, you see the paparazzi frenzy over celebrity baby pictures, and when it comes to death, we see people at their best or worst."

When Walker died Saturday, #RIPPaulWalker trended on Twitter. People referenced their favorite memories of him, even if it was just a recollection of, say, his supporting role in the '90s romantic comedy "She's All That." Some recalled actually meeting Walker, fleeting encounters that would place their relationship with the actor at the smallest possible level above a stranger. 

"It could be some obscure D-list actor," Murray says. "But when they die, people post these messages as though this was their favorite actor that ever lived. I think the reason people do it, it's kind of like acknowledging to the public that you were impacted by this person's life in some capacity."

'We're so quick to pull out the black veil'

When news of Walker's death began to surface, many people waved it off as a hoax. After all, celebrity death hoaxes have a long and curious history, and the unchecked streams of information on social media sites make it that much easier to perpetuate such lies. 

"It's always interesting to watch, since we're so fascinated with death, it's been so easy for people to set up these hoaxes," says Murray. "We're so quick to pull out the black veil and tissues. Social media, in addition to giving everybody this place to mourn, it has also killed off countless personalities who are, in fact, still alive."

In Walker's case, however, the rumors were true. And in the atmosphere of grief that followed, there arose a natural curiosity for more information. "There is a segment of the media that plays into the emotionalism of celebrity deaths," Murray says. He noted that, since Walker's untimely passing, entertainment sites have been saturated with stories of the star's life and death. "Sometimes the media creates a demand for celebrity death coverage that plays into the insatiable appetites of these fans, and that appetite can be overzealous."

One of the most recent examples of this frenzy was the death of Michael Jackson. When Jackson passed away in June 2009, it was as if the entertainment world came to standstill. "It doesn't matter where they are, it doesn't matter what they're doing, the moment someone hears someone else has died, they stop in their tracks," Murray says. Combine that with the international devotion commanded by a star like Jackson, and the result was a death saga that played out over years, in courtrooms, in concert halls, movie theaters, in graphic pictures on the front of tabloid magazines

And in the case of Jackson and other megastars gone too soon, death is a highly marketable venture. "Media artists see their biggest sales in death," says Murray. "There's something about having this connection to somebody in death that makes people communicate and consume in extravagant ways."

'Everybody becomes a mourner'

James Gandolfini. Lee Thompson Young. Cory Monteith. These are just a few of the celebrities that have passed away in 2013. With each death came the attendant mourning, the #RIPs, and the remembrance montages, all of the public emotions boiling together in the crucible of social media. It is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, this way of mourning, and it could be no more than a natural extension of the way we've always done it. Only now, while we watch, and mourn, the world is watching (and mourning) right back. 

"Before the invention of social media, [discussing death] was all table talk," Murray says. "You had to get on the telephone, you had to reach out to someone. Social media has made it so that you can have an immediate impact. Everybody becomes a mourner. You may not be able to go to this person's funeral, but you can take a moment to act out and express something about the person's life."

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