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Tuesday, April 27, 1999 Published at 16:29 GMT 17:29 UK


Why we mourn celebrities

Millions mourned Diana, although they never knew her

The huge outpouring of grief in response to the murder of Jill Dando once again raises the spectre of a nation shocked and saddened by one death.

Jill Dando 1961 - 1999
While scores of helpless civilians have been killed as war rages in Kosovo, it is celebrity which strikes the most resonant chord with the public.

As Arthur Koestler put it: "Statistics don't bleed; it is the detail which counts."

More than 7,000 tributes were received by BBC News Online within 24 hours of Miss Dando's murder.

[ image: Jill Dando: Her face was more familiar to many people than their neighbour's]
Jill Dando: Her face was more familiar to many people than their neighbour's
Fans, who only ever knew her as a face on the TV screen, have delivered flowers to the doorstep where she was shot and a book of condolence in the reception of BBC's Television Centre has been filling up.

Such collective mourning inevitably brings to mind the tidal wave of response after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Within hours of her death, at the age of 36, ordinary people instinctively flooded to the princess's home in Kensington and other public spaces around the country.

Bouquets were laid alongside tributes, poems were penned in honour of the "people's princess" and crowds swarmed into London for her funeral.

There were even reports of mourners collectively seeing a vision of Diana in a portrait of King Charles I in St James's Palace.

[ image: Floral tributes in memory of Dando]
Floral tributes in memory of Dando
Within days, the classic image of Britons as a reticent, emotionally repressed people intent on preserving a colonial-like "stiff upper lip" had also been laid to rest.

Attempting to explain the phenomenon, clinical psychologist Fiona Cathcart says it is partly down to today's less community-minded society.

"People overtake hearses these days," she says, the point being that in modern communities, neighbours do not invest time in getting to know each other.

Instead, it is the rich and famous; the faces on television and in celebrity-focused magazines that command our attention.

"We know more about the details of their lives. The clothes they wear, their ambitions, where they last went on holiday than we do of the family next door."

"They are almost an extended family, and so when someone dies, especially like Jill Dando at a young age and in such tragic circumstances, it's more harrowing."

[ image: A child's tribute says:
A child's tribute says: "I will miss you"
Age is an important factor. Both Miss Dando and Diana were young enough to be looking forward to life, rather than back on it. And although Diana's troubled marriage proved a focal point for many mourners, in the case of Miss Dando it was the manner in which she died.

"We are shocked because if you can be murdered on your own doorstep, in daylight then are any of us safe? We are reminded of our own fragility."

Writing for a special edition of The Psychologist, which set out to analyse the "complex reactions to the death of Diana", Professor Dominic Abrams saw mourners as unconsciously imitating each other.

"Under conditions of uncertainty, people are at their most vulnerable to social influence and are strongly dependent on social comparison," he wrote.

Dr Oliver James, whose book Britain on the Couch examines psychological changes in the nation's character since the 1950s, says Diana's troubled life in some ways mirrored the difficult experiences of normal people.

He points out that 80% of those queuing up to sign the books of condolence were female.

Mourning not for the public

Compared to 1950, a 25-year-old today is 10 times more likely to suffer depression, says Dr James, and suicide attempts and bulimia have mushroomed. These problems are 2-3 times more common in women.

He did however suggest that, in the case of Diana, mourning was too strong a word. In an article for Time magazine, he said it detracted from the suffering experienced by those close to her.

"Feelings of horror, regret that she should no longer be with us and sympathy for her relatives are appropriate, but to claim mourning for a stranger?" he wrote.

"Whilst the sincerity of the feelings are undoubted, their authenticity is not."

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