A Macabre Sporting Event: Why Funerals Play So Well on TV

Published September 11, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Though no one would have predicted it 50 years ago at the dawn of the medium, one of the things television does extremely well is present a funeral -- not only for Diana or Mother Teresa (whose service will be covered live on Saturday), but for John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, Yitzhak Rabin, Lord Mountbatten and even Emperor Hirohito. Mourning no longer becomes Electra, but in a very odd way, it does become television -- so much so that Michael Kinsley several years ago jokingly suggested that cable television would one day feature a new network called the Funeral Channel.

There are, of course, obvious ways in which the funerals of great political or cultural leaders make for memorable television. "It's a spectacle without surprises for which television can prepare -- kind of like a macabre sporting contest," says Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "These events are aesthetically perfect for TV because you know the star of the show will always hit the mark." That's especially true in the case of someone like Diana, a megacelebrity whose claim to fame came primarily through the print press, not through today's traditional routes of TV or film. In death, TV could finally control her in a way it controls almost all other celebrities in life.

Such funerals also allow a nation -- and now the world -- to witness the ritual live and share its grief collectively. In fact, in a multi-channel cable age of atomized viewing patterns, they are among the only broadcasts left that attract such huge audiences, creating what scholars Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz call "holidays" of communication. Making that holiday even more notable, the networks usually forego commercials during funeral broadcasts. Such events are among the few notable occasions on television when God is mentioned, and among the rare times the rituals of organized religion are shown with respect outside the Sunday morning viewing ghetto. Funerals are also blissfully distinctive on television because they are virtually the only time when the voluble commentators stop commentating -- if only for a few moments -- and allow something to speak for itself.

Yet there are other, less evident reasons why funerals on television are such striking events. A funeral provides yet another way for television to engage in the popular enterprise of biography. In recent years, TV has rediscovered the notion that history can be entertaining -- particularly if the political is made personal -- and the result has been the A&E network's "Biography" series, PBS's "The American Experience" (which will feature eight biographies of 20th century presidents this season), as well as recent docudramas about George Wallace and Teddy Roosevelt. A period of mourning, followed by a funeral, allows network television to present a kind of grand biography in a way that time doesn't allow on shows such as "Dateline NBC," "PrimeTime Live" or even "Entertainment Tonight."

There's also a way in which a state funeral on television is better than being there in person, and not simply because you can see more clearly. Watching on TV allows the mourning viewer to express grief privately, in the comfort of the home. Moreover, as Marshall McLuhan frequently reminded us, television is a "cool" medium, and that coolness allows the home audience to distance itself from its sorrow and even from the fact of death itself. "Television takes the chaos of death, reduces it and puts a frame around it," says Jan Gough, a former television writer and a recent graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. "On television, it's all so contained, so distant and so safe." The small screen affords the viewer a form of virtual mourning.

Yet for all the distance TV provides, a funeral is a striking media event because it does deal in a real way with death. Except for an occasional made-for-TV movie like "Brian's Song" or the even rarer death of a regular character like Col. Blake on "M*A*S*H," television reflects and reinforces American culture's almost complete ignorance of death. (How many commercials are there for coffins or funeral homes?) Even old people don't appear that often on television, in part because they might remind us that the Grim Reaper is lurking around the corner. As Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., has pointed out, the Victorians openly discussed death but ignored sex, whereas our culture of television does the opposite. One of the basic conventions of TV drama and comedy is that no matter what happens, the stars will always return to fight or crack jokes the following week. "The purpose of a soap opera," critic Dennis Porter once noted, "is to never end, and its beginnings are always lost sight of." And, on television today, everything is a soap opera, including the news.

In contrast, a funeral presents finality, and it does so in a way that contrasts sharply with this medium's constant, almost hysterical emphasis on the upbeat. Yes, television is especially adept at telling stories, but a human story that never ends is, at best, a lovely fairy tale. Moreover, with its trademark promise to disclose intimacy by going "up close and personal," this medium revels in joy, anger and disappointment, but rarely shows us the kind of unspeakable sadness we see at a tragic funeral. After all, in the world of everyday television, Perry Mason and Mary Richards are immortal, and princesses don't die in grisly car crashes; together they all live happily ever after in reruns. If TV funerals mesmerize us, it may be because they are a harsh reminder that this "window on the world" is really only a mirror in a fun house. And, despite all we may have seen or heard on television everywhere else, someday the world will truly break your heart.

By Steven D. Stark

Steven D. Stark is the author of "Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today," recently published by The Free Press.

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