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A funeral for the masses

Kobe Bryant’s funeral was no small affair.  The family had their private service weeks ago.  But on February 24, Bryant joined an elite group of celebrities with a televised funeral for the world to watch.

The three most-watched funerals in history were Princess Diana and Michael Jackson (2.5 billion worldwide each) and Ronald Reagan (35 million).  But it all began with John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Only a private camera caught the President’s assassination.  That famous footage didn’t air until 1970.  However, news spread quickly and cameras began rolling with updates immediately.

Ironically, after the prime suspect was caught, he too was assassinated – this time on live television.  Fortunately, CBS had new technology – something called “instant replay” – ready for the occasion.  And then came the funeral.  Televised for America to see. 
That day, 45.9 percent of homes with a television were watching.  In less than 72 hours, America went from relying on newspapers and radio to becoming a “TV Nation.”

Yes, the televised funeral allowed the nation to unite and share in its grief.  In fact, reportedly two-thirds of viewers became physically ill or “emotionally distressed” watching the events unfold on TV.

But more so, it helped create the “legendary” mentality of celebrity deaths.

Today, many funeral homes record their services for live-streaming or for the family to share afterward with friends or loved ones who are unable to attend.  Other families watch it later because at the time of the service, they were too numb with grief or shock to process the events of the day.  It’s cathartic.

However, televised celebrity funerals are nothing like a private video shot from a discreetly-placed camera.  They are produced, staged, lit, choreographed, and auctioned off for television rights.  They become more spectacle than catharsis.

But worse, the production manages to transform what was simply a human being with successes, flaws and a past, into a god-like icon of legendary status: never to be questioned or judged.

Gayle King recently interviewed WNBA star Lisa Leslie, during which she asked, among other topics, how Bryant’s rape accusation 15 years prior might affect his legacy now.  After CBS ran a promotion featuring that question, King was attacked on social media, her life threatened for mentioning Bryant’s not-so-pristine past.  And King wasn’t the only reporter to receive such public censure.

Why?  The case made headlines.  It was no secret.  And by all accounts, Bryant did a lot of good in the years the followed.  Some might call it a redemption.  Something worth honouring.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t fit the iconic spectacle of a custom-made casket covered in NBA trophies at a star-studded funeral.  They want god-like bright white, not mere human shades of grey.

The loss of Bryant, his daughter and the seven others in that helicopter crash is a tragedy.  For families and for sports.  But after weeks of sanitized tributes, this televised funeral has only heightened the blind idolatry.

If fans don’t honour the whole story of Kobe Bryant, why bother?