Communal Grief: When a Public Figure Dies

Recently, we’ve seen some high profile deaths in the United States. Evangelist Billy Graham passed away in February, and 13,000 people gathered for his viewing. It was unusual for a private citizen to lie in state at the Capitol, but “America’s Pastor” was so well-loved that it made sense to bestow upon him that honor. Upon former first lady Barbara Bush’s death in April, over 2500 people came to her public viewing. Many of the women in attendance dressed in blue and wore pearls, copying Mrs. Bush’s signature look in order to honor her. Stephen Hawking’s funeral in March drew hundreds, and he was universally mourned on social media.

These deaths impact us even though we didn’t know the person because public figures have an influence on our lives. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to know how to grieve. Because Billy Graham and Barbara Bush were, in a sense, public servants, allowances were made to give the public a chance to say goodbye to these beloved figures. Stephen Hawking, by contrast, was a famous academic, without the same kind of public responsibility as a pastor or first lady. His funeral included 500 people, but no public viewing.

Today, technology gives us ways to connect even if we didn’t know the person. We learn of the deaths through the media, and many parts of the funeral proceedings are shared publicly, either through webcasting or broadcasting. Social media gives us an outlet for our grief, and through the online community, we find healing in communal grieving. Details of the funeral service, even the parts we weren’t privy to through broadcast or webcast, are shared and experienced, as we remember and mourn.

Of course, the funerals of public figures require careful planning. Details like song choice, readings, and people who will be involved are decided ahead of time, so that the service honors the person’s life and helps family and friends to process their grief. Mrs. Bush and Reverend Graham, for instance, each made detailed preparations in advance of their deaths.

You may not be a public figure, but you can preplan your funeral to be whatever you want, even incorporating inclusive technology and a viewing that welcomes the community. At Skylawn Memorial Park, our experienced professionals are committed to treating our clients like family, providing exceptional service that honors every life and respects the wishes of each family. We will work with you, to help you preplan your own service or plan the service of a loved one. Additionally, we offer a free preplanning guide, to make the process easier. For more information on preplanning, or to learn about all that Skylawn has to offer, call (650) 227-3142.

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