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How we mourn celebrity deaths says a lot about us

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While I grieve for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and his family, I'm struck by some incongruence in how the media and we react to tragic public deaths.

When Michael Jackson - arguably an artist of equal talent and impact to Mr. Hoffman - died of an overdose around the same age, he was pilloried in the press and on social media as a drug-addled zombie freak, while Hoffman is eulogized like a saint.

Yes, Jackson had the added specter of his sexual abuse allegations. But they were still two great artists who died too young due to drug abuse. And both clearly abused the privilege of money and fame they were afforded by their talent. Yet one is remembered in glowing tributes and the other in scornful mockery.

When Trayvon Martin died at the hands of another man, he was publicly and mercilessly blamed for his own demise. But when Mr. Hoffman raided his bank account to buy drugs and then stuck numerous hypodermic needles worth of heroin into his arms over the course of a weekend, he is mourned as a victim.

We drop flowers and teddy bears at the site where Paul Walker died after a highly irresponsible high-speed joy ride through a quiet residential neighborhood. Yet we say nothing about the movies he starred in that glorify street racing and undoubtably feed a high-speed, reckless car culture that takes thousands of lives a year.

Understand, I am not criticizing Mr. Hoffman or Mr. Walker. I am criticizing us.

I love the fact that we recognize beloved public figures when they die too soon. Be it Tim Russert, John Candy or James Gandolfini, I am always saddened by their passing and heartened that we have the capacity as a culture to come together and mourn their loss collectively. In some way, they represent the millions that die in anonymity. Celebrity deaths aren’t more important; mourning them is a form of mass cathartic grief for the unheralded lives that also ended too soon.

Troubled celebrities like Cory Monteith, Mindy McCready, Jovan Belcher, Lee Thompson Young, Ana Nichole Smith, and David Carradine aren't freaks. They are merely the most public victims of the human frailties that privately haunt us all.

So we should stop and think about how we canonize some public lives while shaming and condemning others.

There is good and bad in all of us. When the body releases a soul, we should also release its transgressions and celebrate its accomplishments.

For judging the sins of the departed is no longer our responsibility.

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