Famous Dead People

At the recent Continuum 7, Melbourne’s Speculative Fiction and Pop Culture Convention, I attended a panel called “Goodbye Sarah Jane”. It was a tribute to actress Elisabeth Sladen and the character of Sarah Jane Smith, which she played in Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Ms Sladen passed away recently and her death has had quite an impact on Doctor Who fans across the globe. And it got me thinking…

Celebrity deaths are an odd thing to deal with for fans. If a writer, musician or actor whose work you admire, dies — how do you cope? How do you express your grief? And what level of grief is appropriate, given that you didn’t actually know the person? It can be really weird.

I remember when Princess Diana died. I was shocked when I heard the news and I remember feeling saddened. But to other people it was a much bigger deal. News reports were full of people crying in the streets. There was a huge outpouring of genuine grief from people who had only ever known her from afar.

Earlier this year, the death of author Diana Wynne Jones affected a lot of readers. The Twitterverse and Blogosphere were flooded with tributes and expressions of grief. But there was also a sense of comfort derived from that fact that her memory would live on through her books.

The thing is, that authors, actors, musicians and other creative people often touch the lives of those they never meet. The characters they create can seem like friends, the stories they weave can affect our lives, and the emotions they bring forth in their admirers can be very real. So, when a person who has influenced our lives, even without ever meeting us, dies… it is not at all surprising or inappropriate to feel grief.

I have only ever shed a tear for two such ‘celebrities’. The first time was in 1990 when I heard that Jim Henson had died. Through his storytelling and amazing puppet creations he had been an important part of my formative years — first through childhood with Sesame Street and the Muppets, then through my teenage years with the mind-blowing films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. I found it impossible to watch the television special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, without crying. One scene sticks with me to this day and still brings a tear to my eye — the Muppets all standing around and looking down, acknowledging their puppeteers and noting that one of them is missing.

The second time was when I discovered that Elisabeth Sladen had passed away. I never knew her and, in fact, had never seen her act in any role other than Sarah Jane Smith. But Sarah Jane was such an important part of my life. She was the Doctor’s companion when I first started watching the series at age ten. She was my first television crush. When she returned to the role in the revived series, over 30 years after she originally took on the part, my jaw dropped. Then in her late fifties, she was still HOT… and I found myself having my little fanboy crush all over again. So when she died earlier this year, I was not all that surprised at feeling genuine grief.

To see how much the character touched the lives of a whole new generation of children with The Sarah Jane Adventures, take a look at these messages left by kids after Elizabeth Sladen’s death.

As with Diana Wynne Jones, Henson and Sladen will live on through their body of work. Of course, there are also books — many books on the works of Jim Henson and many novels featuring the character of Sarah Jane. And there is nothing like a book to cheer me up when I’m feeling sad.

What about you, dear reader? Which writers/actors/musicians/etc have you grieved for? How have they affected your life? Leave a comment!

Catch ya later,  George

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