There is a group of rock starts whom all died at the age of 27 that perfectly exemplify the idea of a good death or a bad death. Currently, there are 49 members on this list, most famously including Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Amy Winehouse. In a famous quote by Neil Young he stated “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”. This was later cited in the suicide note of Kurt Cobain. The idea behind this quote- and what is thought many of these young rock stars’ deaths is defining the difference between a good death and a bad death.
Here, a good death is one where you die famous, still in the spotlight and doing amazing things, never becoming old and fading away. A bad death is one where you slowly lose your sparkle and your death will no longer greatly influence your fans. When Kurt Cobain killed himself, people went in to mourning. Everyone remembers when they heard Kurt Cobain died, everyone cared when Amy Winehouse overdosed. I remember working at a summer camp for children and everyone screaming about how awful Winehouse’s death was. It is hypothesized that all of these members of the 27 club took their lives so that they could remain their young, beautiful, rock star selves in the minds of their fans forever- leaving a legacy. While there is proof that many of the members committed suicide, there is also thought that many of those that overdosed, did it purposefully. This would support the idea of their strategic deaths.
This reminds me of royal suicide. In some communities, when a king feels he is becoming weak, he will kill himself so that his people will not ever have to see him weak and the royal system can continue on- always having a powerful, strong body in power. While obviously the rock stars of this club don’t have as great of an impact as an actual king- they did call Elvis the “king of rock” and we all know what the public’s response when he died!
The Kelly Gissendaner case has been in the media for almost two years now. I remember about a year ago signing a petition to not have her executed. On Wednesday the 30, Gissendaner was finally executed: the first female prisoner executed in Georgia in the last 70 years. This case was incredibly similar to the Terry Shaivo case because two sides were fighting over the life of a woman, and even the Pope got involved.
Gissendaner was convicted of murder in 1997 for persuading her lover to kill her husband, though she did not commit the actual murder. The Pope, Kelly’s children, and many liberals around the country pleaded to not have Kelly given the death penalty while the family of her late husband prayed that the legal system would come through and put her to death. Much of the controversy around the case expounded from the fact that Kelly, throughout her many years in prison, Kelly converted to christianity and became very strong in her faith. She prevented women from committing suicide in prison, encouraged other women to turn their lives around, and created a theology study for other prisoners (helped some by Emory). Sadly, none of these people could help Kelly in the end and the Georgia government sentenced her to death anyway.
While I could spend an extended amount of time discussing the ethics and effectiveness of the death penalty in America, (which I do not agree with) something even more interesting comes in to play when looking at the Gissendaner case. When Kelly was finally executed, not only did she sing Amazing Grace, but her final worlds were incredibly meaningful and representative of why people were fighting for her life. In a fit of tears, she exclaimed “and I love you Sally. And I love you Susan. You let my kids know I went out singing Amazing Grace. And tell the Gissendaner family I am so sorry. That amazing man lost his life because of me and if i could take it back, if this would change it, I would have done it a long time ago. But it’s not. And I just hope they ding peace. And I hope they find some happiness. God Bless you.”
There are many important parts of this speech. The idea of final last words is strong and here I think Kelly attempts to find some reception before she dies, and she also addresses the fact that her dying doesn’t change anything about the murder that was done, however she clearly very much wishes she could change the fact that the murder happened. It means a lot that in the moments before she was about to die, Kelly is hoping for the lives of the people that are putting her to death.
This blog is a platform of communication for a college course at Emory entitled "The Anthropology of Death and Burial". The purpose is to use this blog to invite the world into our classroom by drawing on current events or phenomena that surround us and that are relevant to our exploration into the topic of death and how people deal with it.
The course is explicitly cross-disciplinary and besides anthropology we also explore the topic of death through the lens of biology, history, religious studies, medicine, law, philosophy, sociology, literature and art. Feel welcome to explore and participate!
Who we are
The contributors to this blog are all undergraduate students at Emory University in Atlanta GA (USA).
The course is taught by Dr. Liv Nilsson Stutz who is an archaeologists with a special interest in mortuary archaeology and ritual studies. She is also a regular contributor.