Goodbye to Amy Winehouse, Living Celebrity Dead

Today friends and family said goodbye to Amy Winehouse, whose ashes will be scattered with those of her grandmother. But far from providing closure, the rituals surrounding her demonstrate that whether we be dead or alive, none of us is truly free.

As has become a common expression of public mourning, the street bordering Amy Winehouse’s apartment has become a shrine. There are flowers, of course, and notes of remembrance, but there are also bottles of vodka and beer. To some this is unseemly. To scholars of religion, it’s a natural expression of our imagined relationship with the supernatural and our ambivalence toward the “living celebrity dead.”

Becoming a celebrity is a form of apotheosis. Celebrities are not only larger than life, they exist beyond life because they never really die. Through television, cyberspace, and digital downloads, celebrity exists after death in an endlessly renewable way. 

With her beehive hairdo, surgically-enhanced bosom, and resplendent tattoos, Amy Winehouse was certainly larger than life. The excesses of her celebrity—an abusive marriage, drug use, and omnipresent paparazzi—were a midnight-blue halo of sanctification. There was a tension in her singing as in her life: her vocal stylings were bright and dark; her days and nights glamorous and desolate. Offerings at her shrine are a material currency in which we buy back some of that dark energy—an energy found in the freedom of contradiction.

When I first lived as a student in India 25 years ago, I went to a temple dedicated to the Goddess Kali in Jaipur at which a special offering was presented. My Indian host family told me to not come home without the offering, sweatmeat, available in stalls near the temple. As I ascended the stairs to Kali’s image, I observed the devotees ahead of me. Tenderly addressing Kali as “mother,” they were not bringing sweatmeats as I was. Instead, they were carrying expensive bottles of foreign scotch.

My host family in India would be quick to clarify that Amy Winehouse was no Kali. Kali is a Goddess of liberating destruction; of breaking the connections that bind us to the world. Alcohol, considered so polluting within traditional Hinduism, becomes an offering precisely because it suggests transcending the very distinction between pure and impure and other dualisms that prevent us from seeing the unity of all things.

While Kali does live at the cremation ground, Amy Winehouse was no Kali. Addicts might begin by reveling in transgression, in oscillating between opposites. But the end is usually not liberation. Offerings to the dead, offerings to Amy, admit that death does not necessarily break the physical and emotional ties that bound us in life.

But there is another aspect surrounding these offerings to Amy. Sigmund Freud, in his psychoanalytic attempt to demystify religious ritual, wrote of the ambivalence we have for the dead. We celebrate them and make offerings to them in large part to repress guilt over their demise.

Back in India all those years ago, I attended the final funeral ceremonies for a close friend of mine, the head priest for one of the largest bathing areas along the Ganges in the holy city of Banaras. In the courtyard of my late friend’s house sat what was called the “Mahabrahman” (the great priest) and placed around him were items that my friend loved: an umbrella, fashionable sandals, and other things. This is your “friend,” I was told: the Mahabrahman stood in his place. 

Academic studies point out the irony in the name Mahabrahman since it is the responsibility of this “great priest” to absorb and consume the remaining inauspiciousness associated with death. At that time, I didn’t understand any of that; it was my last chance to say goodbye. And so I gave the Mahabrahman paan—betel nut and betel leaf, mixed with slack lime and tobacco. My friend and I chewed paan together many times. I couldn’t admit the likely connection between the carcinogenic paan that we shared and the cancer from which my friend died.

A visit to Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, with its graffiti and wine bottles, proves the tenacity of our linkage with the living celebrity dead. The offerings outside Amy Winehouse’s north London home only thinly veil the guilt we share in the deaths of celebrities whose excesses we celebrate.