Thoughts On Seeing Michael In Death

An Image Of "The Last Night"...The Way We Prefer To Remember Michael

I never wanted to see Michael Jackson dead. I was one of those that always shuddered at the thought that there were autopsy and hospital post-mortem photos “out there.” Like many, I feared and dreaded the inevitable day those photos would be leaked. There were rumors of tabloids and other parties offering up to half a million for them. For over two years, an excellent job had been done at keeping those private and under seal, as they should be. But like the white elephant in the room, we always knew they existed, and that one day…

Of course, we now know that even the notorious “ambulance photo” was actually a post-mortem photo. None of us asked to see that, either, but it was splashed on magazine and tabloid covers all over the world. It was bad enough to think that this was the last photo ever taken of Michael alive . But now we know better. Michael was dead from the time Murray found him not breathing. He was dead long before the paramedics arrived. So in that sense, the world had already seen Michael Jackson in death. But maybe it’s just that a hastily snapped, paparazzi photo isn’t the same as looking at a graphic, coroner investigator photo of him lying on a hospital gurney-or worse yet, on the autopsy table.

I knew, of course, that the jury would probably see these photos. Like many, however, I wasn’t quite expecting that they would be displayed on TV. Chalk it up to the pros and cons of having live TV cameras in a court room. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. Allowing cameras and a live broadcast feed from the court room means we see it all, just as the jury does. Warts and all.

I understand why the prosecution wanted the photos shown to the jury. What is inexcusable is how the media immediatly jumped the bandwagon; within minutes those photos were posted on TMZ, The LA Times, in fact, every media outlet I can think of. Haters tweeted the autopsy photo to Michael’s children. I have already seen many of the inevitable, horrid photoshops, the kind that sick individuals with apparently nothing better to do with their lives, like to create. Even in death, Michael has been allowed no dignity, no privacy. Even many of his closest family members refused to view him post-mortem. I know that both Katherine and Joe have stated they did not view him. I believe his brother Tito said he chose not to view him. As Latoya described in her book, this was one reason why she was elected as caretaker of her brother’s remains. Latoya, always the most giddy and seemingly “airheaded” of the Jackson family, proved surprisingly to be the strongest when it came to some of the most gruesome post-mortem tasks involving her brother’s remains. It was Latoya who took Michael’s children in to see their father one last time, so that they might have that closure. She was the one who picked out his burial outfit. In her latest book, one particularly gut-wrenching scene is her description of a few days before Michael’s entombment, when a lab tech, photographer, and police officer said they would need a palm print and more hair samples as part of the ongoing death investigation. Literally propping her dead brother’s body up in a chair, she describes going to great pains to make sure the body was draped with a sheet and covered at all times throughout the ordeal. Why? Because she didn’t trust the photographer; didn’t trust that any photo snapped in the name of “official business” might not somehow find its way to the front page of The National Enquirer!

So one can only imagine how painful it must be now, to know those post-mortem photos are out there for the world to ogle.

Celebrity autopsy photos are big business. In fact, all you have to do is a quick google search for autopsies, and you will find sites that link to the autopsy photos of Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy, and Tupac Shakur, among others. I will admit, I have looked at those photos. Like many humans, I am naturally curious. It’s the same instinctive compulsion that makes us look when we pass the scene of an accident, even though we know we shouldn’t. I will look, but then feel guilty, knowing such photos are the ultimate invasion of someone’s privacy. After all, we are never more vulnerable, more piteously exposed, than in death.

But there are two thoughts of mind on this. Death is also a very natural process. I have always had this sort of clinical ability to detach myself and be able to view a deceased body in, I suppose, the same way a person in the medical field would. Perhaps I’m one of those who would have made a good doctor or mortician, had I been so inclined. It doesn’t “freak me out” to see a dead body. I have seen many of my own loved ones in death, and it has always brought me closure. As some will say, it is only a body, after all. The person is no longer there.

However, I could never quite bring myself to apply that to Michael. Michael Jackson-the most vibrant, dancing, dynamic performer of our time-was not someone I wanted to see dead. I did not seek to see him in death. But the world splashed those photos all over the place, and left us with little choice. That day, when that photo was put before the jury and in front of the TV cameras, we were a captive audience-in the worst sense of that word. The true definition of a “captive audience” is akin to someone tied and roped to a chair, forced to look because they have no other alternative. In that sense, yes, we were a captive audience to something most of us never wanted to see.

No, I didn’t seek those images. But here I have to confess-once they were out there, I did look. But in this case, it was not the same kind of morbid curiosity with which I had looked at other dead images of celebrities. This was something else. It felt intensely personal somehow. Maybe, in a way, I felt like I was finally having my own sense of closure. I will never post or link to those photos, and really have no desire to look at them again. But having seen them, I want to try to describe some of the emotions they envoked-good and bad.

On many forums, I have seen discussions where fans confessed they looked at the photos, even studied them, but then admitted they felt overwhelmingly guilty. The guilt is understandable, because we all know how Michael felt about his privacy, and we do recognize that this is an invasion. But remember, we didn’t ask for these images to be thrust on us. Let’s not beat ourselves up. As I’ve already stated, curiosity is a natural human inclination. Michael himself was fascinated with such things. In Latoya’s first book, she described Michael one day bringing a human brain that he had managed to get from a lab, home to his bedroom. “Don’t tell mother!” he said. He was fascinated with it; wanted to study and dissect it, she said. There was nothing ‘strange” about that. He was a kid, and a boy’s nature is usually to be fascinated with “gross” things. If I know Michael, he would have gotten a laugh out of chasing Latoya and Janet around the house with that brain, giggling as they screeched and screamed.

As for the autopsy photo, I’m not even going there. That was just too much. The hospital gurney photo was sad, but to me, not gruesome or morbid. When I first saw it, I cried and had to gather myself for about five minutes. But the more I looked at it, the more I found a kind of peaceful beauty to it. Let me explain, because this is hard.

The Body of St. Clare

First of all, let me just say, there’s nothing beautiful about the fact that he was lying there dead, far too soon, and for reasons that are just too stupid for words. But it gave me great comfort to see that in death, he was not gross; he was as beautiful as he had always been. I have never been one of those fans who go around describing Michael in deified terms-he was not an angel, or a saint, or a god to me. He was a human being, with all the flaws and frailities of a human being. But when I saw that photo, I couldn’t help but compare it to some of the paintings I have seen of dead saints. There was an ethereal quality about it, but at the same time, something that was heartbreakingly vulnerable and sad. As I looked at his arms, so thin and stilled upon the bedsheet, gauzed with tape. I couldn’t help but think how those arms wanted to hug his children one last time; I thought of him having to go alone, to face the other side without them. I thought of how many hugs those arms had given. I thought of all the pain he had endured in his last years, and that now no one could hurt him, ever again. Call me crazy, if you want. But I just wanted to reach through that photo and stroke his hair and place a parting kiss on his cheek. I wanted to say, thank you for everything you gave us, and now, sleep well. Remember those final lines from Hamlet?

 

Good night, sweet prince

May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest

I guess, really, this is all just a long-winded way of saying, after two years of dread, I have now seen Michael in death. And really, it wasn’t so bad for me (I am speaking from purely personal experience, of course). It gave me peace and closure. Hopefully, no more photos will be leaked, but as many have said, the damage has already been done. Despite numerous complaints, TMZ has refused to remove the autopsy photo. I suspect it generates far too many hits for them to even consider taking it down. But we knew long ago that Harry Levin has no decency, so what else is new? I often go back and think about how hard most of us worked to get that Discovery channel reenactment of the autopsy cancelled. It almost seems in vain now. We instigated that campaign to preserve Michael’s dignity, only to have it violated anyway. The only saving grace, and only difference in this case, is the knowledge that at least-hopefully, this was done in the name of justice, rather than ratings. But however you slice it, the result is the same.

But at this point it doesn’t do much good to get our blood pressure worked up over what can’t be changed. The photos are “out there” now, and will be from here on out, no matter how hard we may work to avoid them. From my standpoint, I’ve simply decided to “own it,” as they say. I have seen the photos, I looked at them; I have made my peace with them. They are not gruesome. They are Michael. And yes, he was as beautiful in death as in life. Death could not take that away. As the old saying goes, once you’ve been faced with something you feared or dreaded, it no longer controls you. It’s like, okay, it’s happened, it’s over, take a deep breath. It wasn’t so bad. Much of this entire trail has been that way for me, to tell the truth. Thankfully, we’re almost to the light at the end of the tunnel.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts On Seeing Michael In Death”

  1. I feel so thankful and relieved at your having dealt with this matter upfront. I did look at MJ’s body in the gurney. And the first thing that struck me was HOW BEAUTIFUL HE WAS EVEN IN DEATH. It brought me peace and thought perhaps Michael would not have minded that we saw him in this state, knowing it would help us come to terms with his passing. I too would have stroked his hair, gently rubbed his arm and whisper thank you and goodbye into his ear.

    But I loathe those who have used his last photos for sensationalism and greed. There is no excuse for that. Thank God, Michael is beyond all hurt.

    1. I didn’t use this in the article but this is a famous painting that I was eerily reminded somewhat of when I saw the gurney photo. This was a painting by Henry Wells depicting the poet Thomas Chatterton in death. Thomas Chatterton was an 18th century poet who died tragically at just 18 years old in 1770, from arsenic poisoning. The death was a mystery since it was never really solved as to whether it was murder or suicide. I think it’s a very beautiful painting which manages in a strange way to depict beauty and serenity in death. Another interesting touch is the open window, which one can interpret as the window through which his soul will fly, now free from its mortal coil. http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chatterton.jpg

  2. Raven,

    Thank you for your beautiful words about Michael and see the picture of him. You always have a way of making something uncomfortable to see, listen and read a little more bearable. Thank you for your insight and love for Michael.

  3. The west has a very different take on death. Here it is almost feared and sort of hushed up and I therefore understand the sentiments behind seeing people in death.
    But for us, in the east…it is a far more open and acceptable phenomena. We wash our dead, drape them in new clothes, cover them in white sheets and then in flowers. The face is always visible (unless it is a violent death) and people pay their respects before the body is taken to the cremation ground in a procession…where people sing along…”the name of Lord alone is true”. Implying that bodies are mortal and reminding people of their own mortality…
    I as a kid was very curious to see the dead (if they happened to pass by), my mother or whoever accompanied me always wanted me to look the other way but my curiosity got the better of me. I then as a child worried about my own death briefly…however, I believe these incidents have made me explore death as I have grown up.
    So seeing Michael that way given my cultural background was not a despicable thing (although the autopsy photo was really not warranted). I cried because the body was empty, the person was gone. But we know, thankfully, the person we loved and who loved us…is out there merged with the ultimate, unconditional love that Michael craved for in life.
    So it might have been a “good-bye” on the earthly plane but I am convinced that I will Michael one day…the “person”…”the spirit” lives on.

    Love

    1. @BlueLotus
      Even in the west, it once was not as taboo as it is now. Families used to take photos of deceased loved ones in the casket. I had an elderly great aunt when I was growing up who had old photos of her son in state (he died in 1926, when he was only eight years old). People these days think that sort of thing is bizarre and morbid, but back then it was perfecfly normal. I saw an interview with Anne Rice once where she was talking about the death culture in New Orleans, and how much closer people are there to death, and how much more accepting they are of death as just a natural part of the cycle of life-not something to be shunned or feared. These days, death has become very sanitized in the west. It’s not like in the old days when people often died at home, were prepared by family, and often would lie in state in the home. Today, most people die in hospitals, and all of the “dirty work” is handled by someone else-morticians, funeral directors, and so on. All the family may ever see is the somewhat “prettified” result once the morticians have done their job. We have thus somewhat distanced ourselves from death.

      In the case of Michael, I think it was a twofold reaction. On the one hand, people who were sensitive to it felt like it was something thrust upon them without benefit of warning. Secondly, and I think the bigger concern, was that it was an invasion of privacy and fodder for the media (who never treated Michael with respect to begin with) and haters. It wasn’t even 24 hrs after the gurney photo hit the media that I saw a horrid and tasteless photoshop made of it. This is the sort of thing we knew was coming if those photos ever got out, and it is so very hurtful and disresepctful. If we lived in a society that was not so sick and depraved, it might be a different story.

  4. It is amazing Raven, how much the western culture has changed in the last 100 yrs and it seems as if it has moved away from what I call the “basic elements”…as a matter of fact the east is heavily influenced by the west but I hope we are able to keep our traditions from being wiped out with time. You I remember once mentioned having a native American ancestry, I am sure those people and our traditions would have a lot more in common.

    I feel to embrace life fully one has to embrace death.

    Coming to Michael, your points are very valid but I remember sick people having created ugly, disrespectful death and autopsy photos right after his death. The revelation of “real” photos may have given rise to another set of those pictures. Honestly, it doesn’t affect me for each such act does not say anything about who MJ was but says a lot about people who do such things and it is not pretty.

    I am sure many people who loved Michael would have had a sense of closure looking at those pictures and for reasonable people a “still alive but in hiding” hoax has been put to rest.

    Love

  5. Raven, thank you so very much for sharing your thoughts on this very sensitive subject. I too still find it hard, after 2.5 years, to think of such a vibrant and alive person not being with us anymore. I lost it when I saw those images of Michael looking as vulnerable as any human being could. I agree with you concerning the first image. I saw the second image by accident as someone e-mailed it to me without warning me. That was too devastating and raw for words. In light of all that has happened, I try to comfort myself in the knowledge that Michael is in a safe place now.

  6. Hello Raven,

    I am so glad you’re back. I read this article and I want to say “thank you” for having the courage to be so honest and straight-from-your-heart.

    I, too, was totally unprepared when the photos flashed on my TV screen. I was just shocked. As much as I miss Michael Jackson and feel his death was so senseless and highly preventable, I have found peace in knowing that he is no longer a part of the ugliness of this world. I know in my heart that he is alive and creating somewhere in the universe. I never worshipped him like a god; he was a flesh and blood human being, albeit a very rare and breathtaking human being, but flawed and imperfect nonetheless.

    No one except Michael himself knew what it was like to live in his skin. I cannot imagine how stressed he was and how vulnerable and fearful he must have felt knowing he would have to perform in 50 concerts at age 50, having not been on a stage in front of the public in 10 years. Perhaps that quiet departure into the “good night” wasn’t so bad after all. It’s just that there’s this cavernous hole in our world created by his absence that can never (and will never) be filled.

    Great to have you back!

    God bless and may you have a wonderful Christmas and bright, shiny New Year!

  7. That last photo you included is one I prefer to remember him by. There is something ethereal about it. If only he could have seen himself through his fans eyes, he would never have entertained a whisper of a doubt about how beautiful he was. I wish he could have known in his heart that no matter what, his fans loved him for him even if he never sang another note.

    1. Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful pic. I always try to select pics of Michael that capture whatever mood or thought I’m trying to convey. He was so photogenic and versatile that it’s never too difficult to find just the “right” photo!

  8. When I saw the picture of Michael in his death, I cried too. It was like being hit in the stomach and forced to see something I was not prepared to see. I wanted to reach out to him and hold him, protect him somehow…someway. He WAS beautiful in death as he was in life… which proves the depth of love that continually flowed from his heart and soul… that even after his passing, His love was still in the room. Seeing him did bring closure, and instead of grieving by his graveside, maybe we should “Celebrate Him into the presence of God”, and carry out His mission together… doing whatever we can to help those who are not able to help themselves… whatever we can do to make our little corner of the world better… Heal The World…Loving God, Loving each other.

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