Private Tragedy, Public Grief: David Bowie

The death of David Bowie was, I imagine, a tragedy for his family and friends: a deeply-felt personal loss compounded of many different elements. For David Bowie himself, I don’t think ‘tragedy’ is the right word. What happens after death is a mystery but, in common with Catholics everywhere, I believe that death is not the end of life: that, unless we are specially graced, we enter upon a period of purification (Purgatory) which holds the promise of eternal joy (Heaven). But for everyone else? The outpouring of public grief and the endless tributes in the media will have recalled for many the reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. A public figure many feel they knew personally, and who had attained some sort of iconic status, is publicly mourned in a way that may truly be called cathartic.

It is some time since I last read Aristotle’s Poetics, but I remember thinking how interesting it was that his notion of the purging of the emotions of pity and fear should be linked to the Greek word for purity, katharos. We are cleansed by the safe release of potentially destructive emotions. Isn’t that what we are seeing in the reaction to David Bowie’s death? Our own death and the feelings we have about it are somehow tied up with his. Add to that the power of the media to make us feel we have a personal connection with someone; its ability to scatter stardust over even the most ordinary activity or event; above all, the way in which it invites a sense of immediate engagement, all these contribute to the extraordinary scenes we have witnessed.

But I have to sound a slightly discordant note. It would be a great pity if we were to forget that however much we may love or admire someone, we do not own them. Admirers of David Bowie’s work will want to go on talking in terms of hyperbole about his achievements and lamenting the fact that he no longer walks this earth. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should not obscure the fact that when someone dies we have two urgent duties: to pray for the dead, and comfort the living. That is worth infinitely more than all eulogies and tears with which his death has been greeted. So, this morning, I invite you to pray with me for the soul of David Jones (Bowie) and for the comforting of those who loved him best.