STEPHEN SMITH: Croc Tears: Irwin Funeral Points Up Public-Grief Fad
"Watch out," the woman warned me, "there are two copperheads on the trail ahead of you."
"Copperheads?" I asked. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," she said.
Usually I can power-walk around Reservoir Park in about 45 minutes, but the prospect of stumbling upon a couple of deadly snakes is enough to slacken my pace considerably. As far as I'm concerned, there are only two kinds of snakes -- poisonous and more poisonous. It's my rule to avoid both.
I agree with the Belle of Amherst: "Sweet is the swamp with its secrets,/ Until we meet a snake:/ 'Tis then we sigh for houses,/ And our departure take/ At that enthralling gallop/ That only childhood knows./ A snake is summer's treason/ And guile is where it goes."
Right on, Emily!
So I proceeded down the trail with caution, keeping a wary eye out for reptiles of any ilk.
That's when I started thinking about Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter.
I'm sorry he's dead. He was only 44. He had a family, friends, and fans who truly loved him, but he was too full of energy and courage. Fool's courage.
I have to agree with comedian Norm MacDonald: "Forty-four is a ripe old age for a crocodile hunter."
What's interesting about Steve Irwin is the brouhaha his death occasioned. His funeral service was broadcast live on television through ABC to Australia, Asia and the U.S. In other words, millions of people who didn't know Steve Irwin except as a TV personality watched his funeral. It was one of those Princess Di things -- piles of flowers, tons of poems and, dare I say, way too many crocodile tears.
There are times when public grief is justified. Like everyone else in America, I watched John Kennedy's funeral on TV. He was our president, and his burial was an event of great import. But Steve Irwin? It's puzzling.
We live in a time where the death of a TV personality is histrionically celebrated by everyone on the planet who has access to electricity and a cathode ray tube.
And here are a few of the newspaper headlines: "Moving farewell to 'wildlife warrior,'" "Irwin death film 'will never air,'" "Tears for the 'Crocodile Hunter,'" "Fate of Irwin's remains 'a mystery,'" and "Life with the real Steve Irwin."
We're well on our way to becoming a world of public grief junkies who mourn despite the fact that we didn't suffer any direct personal loss. We mourn in order to boost our sense of personal worth and to exercise some kind of pseudo-righteousness.
I can foresee a time when we will recognize the anniversary of every public tragedy, and we can mope around mumbling to ourselves, "Ah, me, such a shame, such a shame. Here are some cut flowers and a sweet poem I wrote for the occasion." If we put our poem and some flowers on the doorstep, we might just get our pictures on TV or in the newspaper.
As usual, the media are probably to blame for the public-grief phenomenon. If we knew less about public personages, we wouldn't be tempted to mourn their passing. And if the media ignored tragic anniversaries, would we give these events more than a passing thought? Probably not.
The truth of Steve Irwin's death is this: A stingray, normally a placid fish, has a 10-inch poisonous barb that can skewer you through the heart if you aren't careful, and if you spend your life leaping on the backs of crocodiles and alligators and poking poisonous vipers with a stick and dangling them by their tails, something bad might happen to you. This life of averages spares no one, not even the most experienced of crocodile hunters.
Only one of the copperheads -- at least I think it was a copperhead -- remained on the Reservoir Park trail. As Dickinson wrote in another of her poems, "I went zero at the bone." I stopped and stared, and he stared back, his forked tongue flickering in and out. Then the slender fellow slithered casually on his way, disappearing into the undergrowth. We gave each other plenty of room. And time.
Stephen Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story