Would Michael Jackson Have Wanted Such a Big Funeral?

As is the case with any news story that elbows all the others out of the way, the media coverage of Michael Jackson's death has begun to spawn a backlash. That's understandable, given how short our attention spans are, but to those dreading the wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson's memorial, I have a simple question: how are you not completely fascinated by this? What's so captivating about the fallout from Jackson's death isn't the minutiae of how he died, but rather the uncomfortable questions that arise from the most private moment of a most public person. What is the right way to celebrate a life that belonged to everyone? How does one ensure that both Michael's family, and the strangers who thought of him as family, get to bid him farewell in a respectful manner?

By day's end, we'll get alternate versions of the answers to these questions, but issues so fraught can never be addressed in a way that satisfies everyone. His funeral is a 17,500-person spectacle at the Staples Center in Los Angeles with a guest list that includes Jennifer Hudson, Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder—and possibly a billion viewers worldwide. Obama's inauguration is so six months ago. The where-were-you-when moment of 2009, if not the aughts, is the day when the King of Pop lay in repose in a basketball arena.

The grandeur of the memorial is both fitting and tragic. What Michael's biggest fans and harshest critics seem to agree on is that whatever Michael became he became as a result of the constant scrutiny that began when he was a child and that will continue to stalk him long after his death. Whether or not he was addicted to painkillers is still being dissected, but it's clear that Michael was always addicted to a drug that was clearly no good for him: megafame. It almost feels like the right thing to do would be to give him the respite that eluded him when he was living. But funerals are for the living more than they are for the dead, and it's equally logical to magnify the attention to the end of what Socrates might have called the overexamined life. Fans, after all, feel like every album, every poster, every concert ticket and commemorative T shirt is like a share of stock they've bought, and when a celebrity dies, it's time to cash in.

This is what Michael would have probably wanted anyway. After all, we are talking about the guy who once floated a 30-foot golden statue of his likeness down the Thames to promote a record. He didn't do small, and he didn't do modest. But what's amazing about the tricky process of planning today's memorial is that anyone had to guess his wishes at all. His ex-wife, Lisa Marie Presley, has said in recent interviews that Michael mused that he might end up like her father, Elvis, who also died young of heart failure. If it's true that Michael was this aware of his mortality, why didn't he more explicitly lay out details for how he wanted his death and burial handled? It's the suddenness of Michael's death that caught everyone by surprise, and it seems he wasn't any more prepared for it than the rest of us. That's to be expected from a boy who never really grew up.

  • Gallery: Photos from the Jackson Memorial Service