Heath Ledger’s death last week at the age of 28 transformed him from an acclaimed actor into a cultural icon. The general public as well as the famous and powerful paid tribute to him; tens of thousands signed his memorial page on Facebook. There were eulogies from movie idols, music legends, politicians, and athletes, extolling his virtues.
To be cut down in the prime of one’s life forces the young to face their own mortality. It doesn’t matter whether that untimely death is intended or not; when someone who has so much to live for dies, it captivates our attention.
How do we make sense of such untimely death? The first thing we do is immortalize those who die young; they live forever in our minds as a way to shield us from our own mortality. The second is that we look at our lives and the choices we’ve made about how we’ve pursued fame and fortune. It’s a reminder of Achilles’ dilemma when he learns from his mother that he has two options in this life: he can either live, or die young and earn everlasting fame. Achilles chooses fame, and upon his early death he is mourned by mortals and Gods.
When a superstar dies young, it may also be comforting to the majority of us who never achieve such fame that the choices we have made have been more life-affirming.
I mourned Heath Ledger’s passing not only because he was a young man of talent, but a man of courage. In Brokeback Mountain he chose to play a gay role in a homophobic world. You have to mourn the loss of people with courage, because they help us see the world from a new perspective. May his light continue to illumine the earth.