Tuesday, October 19

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Death and the salesmen: Diana's burial site is a hot item

Tickets for admission to the burial site of Diana Spencer went on sale over the phone on Monday, and it's definitely a seller's market. The opportunity to view ("from a respectful distance across water," as the Washington Post put it) the island on which "Lady" Di is interred has all of Britain going mad. Not that well-informed foreigners aren't adding to the insanity. Ducats to the second coming wouldn't go so fast (unless you were selling to Jehovah's Witnesses, who appear under "gullible" in Webster's).

Let us note that these passes to the Spencer's estate retail at roughly $15.60 ($11.50 for Grandma), which concludes the advertising portion of this column. Rather than just sit here on hold waiting for the pound sterling to plummet, however, one may wonder at the lengths to which we have pushed our commercialism. Death certainly seems to have become a commodity like any other, a marketable event incomplete without T-shirt and compact disc. It doesn't matter if you really knew her, Elton. It still feels wrong.

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Perhaps thinking that death should be, or ever was, sacred is naive. Merchants have tried to sucker believers into buying pieces of the "true cross" and the like for a long time. In modern times, the Elvis (of course) and Kurt Cobain markets did a lot to dispel the idea of sanctity in dying. Since one may still be alive and the other barely was, passing away still used to feel like the last thing our culture could handle with dignity. (I do not want any proor anti-assisted-suicide e-mails for that last sentence. I mean that.)

Once murder became fetishized – thank you, Mr. Simpson, wherever you are – death was the next logical step. The works and products of dead artists have always done well. Our cultural suspicion of high art has made the cliché that a painter must die before he can be appreciated one of our favorites.

That Di's shrine differs in scale and kind from the familiar consequences of a famous death (namely, posters with dates) is obvious. For one thing, Diana is huge. Everybody loves her for some reason or other (dislike of monarchy and Charles' ears are among the first cited), and this means anything done in her memory becomes an event of global proportions. In our country, only sites dedicated to Elvis, JFK or Lincoln can really compare. And none of those guys had their funerals televised worldwide. Surprisingly, the networks didn't sell commercial time for that one. A shame, really.

More importantly, however, the nature of this offer feels different: The public is asked to pay, it seems, for the very privilege of mourning. Even the pretense of concern with Di's life is absent. At least at Graceland, shilled tourists get a taste of the King's existence as redneck made good. Granted, many museums charge simply so that they can keep up the grounds, but there must be a better way to limit visitors and the havoc they wreak than preying on their sense of loss to turn a tidy profit. If it feels like exploitation, looks like exploitation and precautions are taken against scalpers, it must be collegiate athletics or a peek at Diana's grave.

The atmosphere surrounding the sale of these printed pieces of cardboard resembles that of a WCW tour of Arkansas. Maybe it's just me, but that feels wrong, if only because it disrespects the deceased and the mourners-turned-curiosity-seekers.

One clear lesson from all this is already well-known in American business circles: Disposable income turns people into morons, or at least allows them to display the natural human penchant for idiocy. Post-holiday sales and the presence of paying spectators at Maverick's games have already proven this point, confirmed daily when yet another hideous Hollywood cycle (natural disasters, courtroom drama) fails to bankrupt the industry. No, American apologists, it's not just the foreign market keeping it afloat, though some pictures actually gain in translation. Don't we know when our intelligence is being insulted? Apparently not. But I digress.

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The frenzy that has surrounded the sale of these tickets shouldn't surprise us. If anything, it will grow. Our collective dignity was sold off long ago; the smart ones got Microsoft stock options in the exchange, but most of us must make do with this empty feeling it left behind.

In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is both a carnival celebrating life and a remembrance of others. At worse, it is kitschy. In the States and even Europe, Halloween is just one in a line-up of stomach turning events someone made up to sell candy. Of course, it's great for the economy, as Hershey's Inc. and your dentist will tell you, so why complain? Death is the final frontier, and we have conquered it (if only economically), so let's make like the Spencers. Time to sit back and watch the dough roll in.

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