I feel peculiar about public mourning of celebrity death. Today in particular. Not because I care so much about the recently deceased and wish we did more authentic honor to their names or that tweeting it cheapens the experience (though I think enough of this practice that I’m naming it now). I feel peculiar about it because I know next to nothing about the people we’re all praising.
I didn’t realize half of the people I follow on Twitter loved Jon Hassell, for example. MF Doom, Gift of Gab, I understand, were more pop cultural, and young enough to be shocking, but it’s strange to mourn people I’ve never heard talked about out loud. And by the way, the last celebrity death that propelled me to say anything publicly was Chick Corea, who is also obscure to many people, so I’m far from exempt from my own judgement of the rest in peace dance. Look, I can be honest.
I think of people we did know. I get sad thinking about Tom Spurgeon this week. While not a celebrity by any meaningful standard of pop culture, to those who knew him, Tom was the most important person you would hear from when you heard from him. He was complicated, to be sure, but if he blew wind in your sails, you could go very far. It was a lot of wind sometimes. Like, too much, maybe even. Perhaps the irony with his passing is that he was not so much the celebrity as you were the celebrity and he was the hype man. The world’s most famous hype man in comics. Strange company indeed.
So how shall we honor the dead?
I’ve been working with Pantheon Books through Chip for the better part of a decade now. For those unfamiliar with publishing companies, just know that it’s a big one. This isn’t a brag, but really just to say I’ve been in the belly of their operations for long enough to know a few people, including the lionized higher ups. It’s remarkable how severe the life loss has been in those upper ranks the past couple of years. A lot of people got moved around in a Penguin Random House management shift of paradigmatic scale, and then several important people there died. Notably, their most vaunted editor and the mythical president—Dan Frank and Sonny Mehta. This is basically like if Rick Rubin and Jimmy Iovine both died within a year of each other (also if Rubin and Iovine wore Dockers and braided leather belts though. They were still literary editors, after all.). Anyway, Pantheon Books continues onward and upward. No threat of anything ending there just because of the measly passing of their most famous human assets. I find it interesting to see what a difference there is between a major corporation that loses talent, and the rest of us. When small publishers die, so do their businesses, frequently.
The point is that the trick to dying is to leave a succession plan. Many of my publishers and mentors did not. Shannon Michael Cane, Frank Zahn, Tom… Shit, Alvin Buenaventura! Who is not precisely responsible for any of my work but certainly an adjacent publisher and whose death rattled many of us; even enemies. How did these guys even exist?!
I know of many leaders who have worried about their sudden deaths and have accordingly girded their operations. It’s a miracle they’re still with us. If I gird, I might live forever. I’ve been putting off drafting a living will. I keep insisting it’s due to laziness and not fear, but maybe I am putting off the fantasy of what a life looks like in the mouths of friends and family.
Another version of a public rest in peace dance is the achievement of distant notoriety. I was filled with a sick childish glee when the artist Jeffrey Cheung told me someone asked him if he knew me. When Jeff in turn asked if this person knew me herself, she said, “I know of her.” I laughed awkwardly about being known of and all of its pretensions, but I felt, as they say: very seen. So I wonder how obscurely I will die.
A pantheon is a group of legends. They don’t have to be dead, unlike the canonized. How shall we honor the living?