Recently, it has been hard to avoid the media coverage of celebrity deaths. Famous figures including Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and Ed McMahon have died in the past few weeks. Though media scrutiny is obviously more intense than it was a century ago, Mark Twain received an immense amount of press about his death -- even when unwarranted!
As word of Jackson’s hospitalization emerged on June 25, several outlets gave conflicting stories as to his status. Additionally, on the same day that Jackson and Fawcett died, rumors circulated on the internet that actor Jeff Goldblum had died as well. In 1897, Twain was similarly the subject of false death gossip when The New York Journal inaccurately published Twain’s obituary. The mistake occurred after one of Twain’s cousins grew gravely ill and word spread incorrectly. Twain responded humorously to the mix-up with his famous quotation, “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”
While countless celebrities garner media coverage, only a rare few are paid tribute by the U.S. President after their deaths. President Obama recognized Jackson’s star power by noting in an interview the “great joy that [Jackson] brought to a lot of people through his extraordinary gifts.” In a similar fashion, after Twain’s passing, President Taft said, “Mark Twain gave pleasure – real intellectual enjoyment – to millions… He has made an enduring part of American literature.”
Although Twain’s death was national front-page news, his funeral was not a public spectacle like the televised events of some contemporary celebrities. Instead, the ceremony was attended by a small number of relatives and close friends. Nevertheless, Twain’s fans made their gratitude known following the service by covering his grave with notes of appreciation and flowers.
In his tongue-and-cheek essay “At the Funeral,” Mark Twain wrote, “If the odor of the flowers is too oppressive for your comfort, remember that they were not brought there for you and that the person for whom they were brought suffers no inconvenience from their presence.” We can expect that Twain reacted to the gifts of flowers in the manner any newly deceased individual should: with indifference.
- Kevin Mathews
"Death, the refuge, the solace, the best and kindliest and most prized friend and benefactor of the erring, the forsaken, the old and weary and broken of heart." -Mark Twain