Death and Mythology

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The one piece of news that’s making the rounds internationally this morning is the death of Robin Williams. Reading about his death, the only thought that came to me was how well fitting was his death into the cliche – a comedian succumbing to depression – the contradiction innate to human life. For someone, who really doesn’t keep herself updated with news around Hollywood or Bollywood, it came as an utter shock (another typical reaction, I’d like to believe!) that someone with a persona or rather, image like Williams succumbed to depression of all things. Yes, alcoholism and other addictions are common weaknesses (if not vices) of people in such fields but, there is always some sinisterity and mystique built around deaths such as Williams’.

While reading an old interview of his, where he is known to talk more in detail and lucidity about his battles with addiction and depression as opposed to an upcoming film, I came across these lines of his on the American grief industry

“I think people want it. In a weird way, it’s trying to keep hope alive.”

What he points out to is the difficulty and weirdness that comes with mourning in private or experiencing grief in private over a public figure. I believe what he says here, however, doesn’t only apply to public figures in their most literal interpretations. The way with grief is such or has been experienced in such a fashion that tends to dissociate the deceased’s public and private existence – reducing the private side to a glorious myth which then gets transferred to the public.

I cannot speak for others but, I know for one that even the way the Indian society deals with grief is similar to an industry that seeks to ‘mythologise’ the dead. Ignoring all ideas about death and the afterlife or any theories on reincarnation, the Indian way of looking at the mythology of the dead resonates with the proverb of hanging a garland over the picture framed and hung on the wall. That is to say that the grievers tend to make an altogether rosy image of the dead. Not that it is a bad thing, one can always understand it as looking at the glass as half full. However, what I find intriguing is the different attitudes with which people treat or react to different types of death. That is to say, the dead is perceived as it is if they die old and have seemingly lived a full life. If, however, one dies at an age or stage of life which is perceived by the masses as young and (an) unfulfilled (life), There will always be a mystery around relatively young deaths.

What drives people to glorify the dead only of course, after one dies, is seemingly difficult to point out. Is it the prospect of their own death looming someday that scares them or retribution? Or is it the fascination of stories? Who knows!

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