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A tale of two funerals

MGG Pillai

There died in the first half of this month two ladies, one known for her exemplary charitable works, the other famous because she is well-known. Both were given state funerals. It is a reflection of this age of intrusive television that the latter death, of Diana, Princess of Wales, hogged the screens, but it is the former, Mother Teresa, who would live on in history.

The state funerals that India and Britain gave to Mother Teresa and Diana respectively underlines in one slick clip the contrast between the genuinely historical figure of the "Saint of the Gutters" and the media-created, spoilt young woman caught up in the ersatz glitz of the "frenzy of renown" and well-known because she was a well-known figure artificially created by the media and its hangers on.

What brought this about is the gradual dominance of the graphical revolution in our lives, with modern advances in computer technology enabled instant, often, intrusive coverage that made wellknown the frippery. Conspiciousness passed for distinction and the society columns the roll of fame, as Edith Wharton notes in one of her novels written at the turn of the century.

Mother Teresa, on the other hand, sacrificed her life to the wretched of the hovels of Calcutta, bringing an enduring fame not easily captured on camera. So, the ersatz outpouring of grief seen in the Diana funeral was noticeably absent. The restraint in television coveraged added to the dignity of the occasion, and she joined the Gods in a ceremony that rested well on her; as Diana’s did on hers.

Mother Teresa’s good works could not be captured on the television screens without making people puke at the utter helplessness she faced every day. Television, after all, is a medium to make people comfortable, not to make them vomit over the dining table. So, that was reserved for the occasional special programmes that came to tell the world who it was honouring, whether it be the Nobel Prize or her death.

The press was irrelevant in Mother Teresa’s cause, and the raison d’etre for Diana’s fame. The press -- the papparazzi, if you will -- was the drug on which fameoholics like Diana, Princess of Wales, could not live without. The emptiness of the life that lurked beneath was accentuated by the high profile existence she led. And not she alone.

The graphical revolution, which changed for ever the structure of the media, ensured that there would be an insatiable apetite for media-created figures. That brings about the free-lance photographers and the court reporters doing anything possible to bring about the most irrelevant bit of news, coupled with a heavy dose of believable lies, to ensure that the person is intoxicated by it -- and like most drunk persons, turning on the drug dealers, occasionally.

Diana’s death could not be blamed on the papparazzi alone. It is the graphical culture that pervades and emphasises the inconsequential and the irrelevant to sell newspapers and television programmes that made what happened happen. The papparazzi is one of a long chain of parasitical figures in the rush to be suckered in by the "frenzy of renown" as she was. That the only voice for hours that CNN could bring out to criticize the papparazzi was that of Tom Cruise, the actor, makes this point even more dramatic.

Mother Teresa’s funeral attracted several presidents and kings; that of Diana’s, only those monarchs who would normally attend, and those known to her personally. Mother Teresa’s work goes on, even if she attracted criticism, as anyone who does anything selflessly would eventually. Diana’s would fit in comfortably with the Andy Warholean dictum that everyone is entitled to 15 minutes of fame. Mother Teresa would not. And that would be how history would judge the the subjects in this tale of two funerals.

Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 14

Jumada' al-Ula' 14, 14181997-09-16

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