Manners & Misdemeanors

A (Candid) Guide to Celebrity Death Etiquette

Celebrity deaths have turned social media into the Wailing Wall. But how exactly does one mourn publicly with dignity?
IMAGE ILLUSTRATION BY JOE DARROW
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It seems like many celebrity deaths ago. Yet the fumes still linger from the social media conflagration that followed the demise in one bad week in February of Karl Lagerfeld, Lee Radziwill, and Marella Agnelli. Those who knew them, and those who didn’t, grabbed their phones to broadcast conspicuous displays of grief. The model Helena Christensen’s lengthy Lagerfeld screed of sorrow on Insta­gram included references to fun shoots at his mansion in the south of France and a UFO she thought might have taken him away to a better world.

“Of course I posted,” she told me at a dinner months later. “We were close.”

Of course.

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Karl, since the day I first walked into your office on rue Cambon you took me under your wing and brought me along on an incredible journey. My first campaign ever was for Chanel, the second for the Karl Lagerfeld brand. We did numerous campaigns and shoots together in the years that followed but the real beauty and luck about that was getting to know you, observe you, learn from you, laugh with you, enjoy so many special moments with you. Some of the best ones being from your mansion in the south of France where I stayed with you whenever we worked on a campaign. After long shoot days we would end up in Rampoldi for a feast of wonderful food and wines and you were one of the most delightful dinner dates I’ve ever had, sharing stories about everyone in the restaurant and enjoying the food with an infectious delight I so appreciated because of my own love of food. Oh the many wonderful meals we shared.. the many stories.. the many late nights sitting with you in your vast library in candlelight talking about your childhood, work, books, writers, architects, artists, nature, food, people... everything. You knew everything about everything! I saw you last time at the Chanel show at the MET and I wanted to run out to you on the runway and hug you because I had a feeling.. well, I don’t think you passed away, you were just picked up by a UFO and brought back to the planet you’re from. Because you were as close to a super human that I have ever come across. I will miss you very much and always think of you. You gave me so much.. ?????? My life number is 19 ????2-19-2019 RIP @karllagerfeld @chanelofficial

A post shared by Helena (@helenachristensen) on

In a more discreet era, mourning was observed with close ones in private. In the age of oversharing, even grieving has gone viral, and social media has turned everyone into a hot-winded eulogist. Death be not proud, but there’s definitely pride in it—for the living, anyway. How else to explain all the posts about Gloria Vanderbilt jeans on the day the style icon died?

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I didn’t want to make a statement by not making a statement, but Insta­gram just wasn’t a place to process my real grief.

These days we will use the news of any celebrity’s passing as kindling to throw onto the bonfires of vanity, to borrow a phrase from Tom Wolfe. His death last year, of course, ignited its own conflagration, including one influencer posing with a copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. As the late Doris Day would have said, “Que sera sera.”

For those who follow society deaths the way some people follow wedding announcements, the Instagram response to the demise of the famously discreet Jayne Wrightsman seemed particularly grave-spinning. It wasn’t the post about Wrightsman that likened her end to the fire at Notre-Dame, or even the ones by decorators that featured promotional pictures of her 18th-century wallpaper (“I had it copied for a client’s bedroom,” one wrote), as if she had no soul or loved ones, just taste.

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Lee Radziwill's funeral, February 2019.
Photo by GETTY IMAGES.

It was the one about how Wrightsman’s chauffeur was the partner of the poster’s butler, and that Wrightsman didn’t make things difficult for them during seasonal moves to Palm Beach and London. “She was always very kind,” read the comment. Good to know.

Even intimates of the deceased feel pressure to join the communal outpouring. When her mother-in-law died earlier this year, Carole Radziwill didn’t plan to pay her respects on social media. “I wasn’t going to post anything, because I was personally mourning Lee’s passing,” she tells T&C. But her Twitter and Instagram followers shared condolences on the platforms anyway, and questioned why she wasn’t acknowledging the death herself, so in the end she posted a simple black-and-white portrait with the caption “She Was Loved.”

“I didn’t want to make a statement by not making a statement,” she says. “Insta­gram just wasn’t a place to process my real grief,” she says.

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Inès de la Fressange, the famous Lagerfeld muse, felt the same way and didn’t post on the day of his death. “It was really not my mood,” she tells me. But she also felt pressure to respond. “Sometimes I’m surprised by all these RIPs,” she adds, noting that the abbreviation has recently invaded France on social media. “Years ago families in villages would have glued posters on the walls or announced the death in newspapers. Now it takes a different form.”

Death is a time to listen to that little voice of discretion that sometimes goes awry. There are times when it is better to say nothing.

When Emily Post was alive, the rules were simpler. She advised the bereft to draw the shades and avoid ostentatious fashions. Her great-great-grandson Daniel Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute, notes that etiquette issues around death still preoccupy people almost as much as weddings. He now contends with a climate that permits selfies at funerals (President Barack Obama caused a small uproar when he posed for one during Nelson Mandela’s memorial) and the kind of weeping emojis Paris Hilton used when mourning her makeup artist, Jake Bailey, a few years ago.

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“Death is a time to listen to that little voice of discretion that sometimes goes awry,” Post Senning says. “And there are times when it is better to say nothing.”

If only the singer Lily Allen had heard him. After the death of Prince, Rita Ora tweeted her sincere memories of the late pop icon, recalling their dance-offs and laughs. Allen commented, “pics or it never happened,” and her feed was immediately filled with responses calling her out for her flippant bad taste and too-soon crudeness. Her apology, explaining that she was only jealous that Ora had met her idol, didn’t help matters, and eventually she just tweeted, “Oh my the Internet.”

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Photo by CHIUN LEE.

The episode made the online sniping about George and Barbara Bush’s Republican politics after they died look benign.

Even judging how social media mourners behave can get you in trouble. Bret Easton Ellis earned the wrath of Twitter when he wrote about J.D. Salinger: “Yay!! He’s finally dead.” “It was a joke, performance art, but it was the first time I realized social media wasn’t good for that,” says Ellis, whose new book of essays, White, deals in part with knee-jerk indignation and woke culture. Still, he adds, he doesn’t regret the tweet. 

Of course, for every misstep social media inspires, there are happy endings. Memorial sites like Legacy and Dignitymemorial.com can save families from the high cost of paid newspaper obituaries, and posts that linger can help mourners keep the deceased in mind for years. In addition, putting up cheeky videos of the dearly departed, as Alexandra Lebenthal did in 2014 of her father’s vintage mutual bond–selling TV commercials, lets friends and strangers know about the quirks and personalities of loved ones.

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“I don’t judge posting anything as showboating, because I might also be inclined to comment about any kind of connection I’ve had,” says Gail Rubin, whose TED talk on grieving has earned her the nickname “the Doyenne of Death.” “But there is often a fine line between communal grieving and self-­promotion.”

Bob Colacello would agree. Having been an early editor at Andy Warhol’s Interviewmagazine, he could fill his Instagram feed with remembrances of bygone icons at a moment when they are falling one after another. When Radziwill died, he posted that he regretted not having spent more time with her in recent years, the sort of candor that’s usually missing from frenzied social media eulogies.

“She used to hang out with me and Andy,” he says. “But I spoke to Karl Lagerfeld only a few times, so why would I write about someone I didn’t know?”

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It’s hard to guess whether the sharp-tongued couturier would have cared either way. When his longtime enemy Pierre Bergé died, Lagerfeld considered sending a cactus to the funeral. We’ll never know if he followed through with the prickly gesture—he didn’t Insta­gram it.

This story appears in the September 2019 Issue of Town & Country. 

*This article originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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