Terence Blacker: From taboo to a modern fetish

Far from avoiding bereavement where possible, we all want a share in it
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The Independent Online

Football crowds can often provide a surprisingly accurate weather-vane for the public mood. They may, in smarter circles, be perceived as reflecting the baser habits and opinions of society, but when something is in the wind - nationalism, violence, nostalgia, a showy type of grief - it will soon be evident at football grounds on Saturday afternoons.

So the marking of George Best's death before several games with a minute's applause is peculiarly interesting. Giving the dead a rowdy send-off may be popular elsewhere in the world but in the past the British have preferred a sad, slightly embarrassed silence. It took a Frenchman, Arsène Wenger, to articulate, with mild disapproval, how unusual this post-mortem clapping was. "It looks more New Orleans than European to clap, like in church," he said.

The emotion released by Best's death, above all among those who love football, has of course been genuine. Only the flinty-hearted could fail to be moved by the contrasting footage that has been shown on TV: first, that of an elfin figure skipping his way through leaden-footed defences like the very spirit of youth, and then, 30 or so years later, that of a middle-aged man, boozed-up and foolish.

Because his career also had a premature end, there was no gentle decline into sporting mediocrity that would have made his later, sadder behaviour easier to take. He was one thing, then the other. His life represented in a stark and exaggerated form what happens to us all when the unlimited possibility of youth gives way to the blunderings and disappointments of middle age.

In this sense, the connections that have been made with the death of the Princess of Wales are not as foolish as they may at first appear. Princess Diana and George Best both came to represent some universal thing which the people understood and saw in their own more humdrum lives. She came to be an idealised everywoman figure for the misunderstood and unhappy in love; he was an everyman for the sozzled, for those who put fun before responsibility. Even a man who had played the most beautiful football and had slept with the most beautiful women could, Best proved, make a fool of himself in the banal, bathetic way of ordinary humans.

The applause around the grounds was not just for a famous dead footballer. It was for the applauders themselves - for the emotion that each of them was feeling and had been expressed in the media, for the way that the entire was country once more "united in grief". The few Leeds and Liverpool fans who, perhaps arriving at the game in an appropriately tanked-up state, had interrupted the tributes will have outraged the respectful minority far more than if they had been violent or had sung racist chants.

Grieving has become an important emotional need. During the week or so when Best was in and out of intensive care, a curious mood began to be articulated by the media: it was one of impatience. A great public figure was about to die. Millions were ready to move into the mode of public mourning which has become so familiar. But, to the very last, he refused to do the decent thing. His dying took too long.

It seemed as if, day after day, the same sorrowful doctor would appear on the steps of the hospital and bring us up to date with a deathbed summary. He was very ill, seriously ill, on a ventilator, clinging on to life, entering his final hours, it wouldn't be long now. When it was implied, wrongly, that Best would not last the night, the media could bear it no longer. Newspapers and TV news programmes went ahead with their tearful tributes, memories of happier days and tragic headings, in effect obituarising before death. There was almost relief when at last he slipped away and the mourning could begin in earnest.

The taboo which until relatively recently surrounded death, making it a matter of social embarrassment, has been replaced by something very different. Now, far from avoiding bereavement where possible, we all want a share of it. Death has become fetishised. The marking of it is no longer embarrassed but has led to something rather surprising and positive - the treasuring of life by those who are left behind.

"We are gathered here not so much to mourn the passing of a friend but to celebrate a life": how many times has that sentiment been expressed at funerals over the past year? The turning to thoughts of life after death that once accompanied these occasions has been replaced by a needy clinging to life before death. It is not only the earthly days and nights of the deceased that are being celebrated, but our own.

Nothing this emotionally important will long escape the celebrity culture. Just as the affairs and break-ups of the stars provide gossip fodder for the outside world, so dying has become part of the circus, too. An indication of how much more morbid we have become was contained in the coverage of Pope John Paul II when he was slowly fading away. In truth it was not, for non-Catholic Britons at least, the most gut-wrenching of departures but, as he lingered, so the emotional excitement began to build. In the end, his death was a bigger story than his life.

Consciousness of our fragility on these occasions is probably no bad thing, but it seems only a matter of time before, like other celebrities, death gets an agent, starts behaving inappropriately, and finally perhaps gets its own reality TV show.