I never wanted to see Michael Jackson dead. I was one of those that always shuddered at the thought that there were autopsy and hospital post-mortem photos “out there.” Like many, I feared and dreaded the inevitable day those photos would be leaked. There were rumors of tabloids and other parties offering up to half a million for them. For over two years, an excellent job had been done at keeping those private and under seal, as they should be. But like the white elephant in the room, we always knew they existed, and that one day…
Of course, we now know that even the notorious “ambulance photo” was actually a post-mortem photo. None of us asked to see that, either, but it was splashed on magazine and tabloid covers all over the world. It was bad enough to think that this was the last photo ever taken of Michael alive . But now we know better. Michael was dead from the time Murray found him not breathing. He was dead long before the paramedics arrived. So in that sense, the world had already seen Michael Jackson in death. But maybe it’s just that a hastily snapped, paparazzi photo isn’t the same as looking at a graphic, coroner investigator photo of him lying on a hospital gurney-or worse yet, on the autopsy table.
I knew, of course, that the jury would probably see these photos. Like many, however, I wasn’t quite expecting that they would be displayed on TV. Chalk it up to the pros and cons of having live TV cameras in a court room. We can’t have our cake and eat it, too. Allowing cameras and a live broadcast feed from the court room means we see it all, just as the jury does. Warts and all.
I understand why the prosecution wanted the photos shown to the jury. What is inexcusable is how the media immediatly jumped the bandwagon; within minutes those photos were posted on TMZ, The LA Times, in fact, every media outlet I can think of. Haters tweeted the autopsy photo to Michael’s children. I have already seen many of the inevitable, horrid photoshops, the kind that sick individuals with apparently nothing better to do with their lives, like to create. Even in death, Michael has been allowed no dignity, no privacy. Even many of his closest family members refused to view him post-mortem. I know that both Katherine and Joe have stated they did not view him. I believe his brother Tito said he chose not to view him. As Latoya described in her book, this was one reason why she was elected as caretaker of her brother’s remains. Latoya, always the most giddy and seemingly “airheaded” of the Jackson family, proved surprisingly to be the strongest when it came to some of the most gruesome post-mortem tasks involving her brother’s remains. It was Latoya who took Michael’s children in to see their father one last time, so that they might have that closure. She was the one who picked out his burial outfit. In her latest book, one particularly gut-wrenching scene is her description of a few days before Michael’s entombment, when a lab tech, photographer, and police officer said they would need a palm print and more hair samples as part of the ongoing death investigation. Literally propping her dead brother’s body up in a chair, she describes going to great pains to make sure the body was draped with a sheet and covered at all times throughout the ordeal. Why? Because she didn’t trust the photographer; didn’t trust that any photo snapped in the name of “official business” might not somehow find its way to the front page of The National Enquirer!
So one can only imagine how painful it must be now, to know those post-mortem photos are out there for the world to ogle.
Celebrity autopsy photos are big business. In fact, all you have to do is a quick google search for autopsies, and you will find sites that link to the autopsy photos of Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy, and Tupac Shakur, among others. I will admit, I have looked at those photos. Like many humans, I am naturally curious. It’s the same instinctive compulsion that makes us look when we pass the scene of an accident, even though we know we shouldn’t. I will look, but then feel guilty, knowing such photos are the ultimate invasion of someone’s privacy. After all, we are never more vulnerable, more piteously exposed, than in death.
But there are two thoughts of mind on this. Death is also a very natural process. I have always had this sort of clinical ability to detach myself and be able to view a deceased body in, I suppose, the same way a person in the medical field would. Perhaps I’m one of those who would have made a good doctor or mortician, had I been so inclined. It doesn’t “freak me out” to see a dead body. I have seen many of my own loved ones in death, and it has always brought me closure. As some will say, it is only a body, after all. The person is no longer there.
However, I could never quite bring myself to apply that to Michael. Michael Jackson-the most vibrant, dancing, dynamic performer of our time-was not someone I wanted to see dead. I did not seek to see him in death. But the world splashed those photos all over the place, and left us with little choice. That day, when that photo was put before the jury and in front of the TV cameras, we were a captive audience-in the worst sense of that word. The true definition of a “captive audience” is akin to someone tied and roped to a chair, forced to look because they have no other alternative. In that sense, yes, we were a captive audience to something most of us never wanted to see.
No, I didn’t seek those images. But here I have to confess-once they were out there, I did look. But in this case, it was not the same kind of morbid curiosity with which I had looked at other dead images of celebrities. This was something else. It felt intensely personal somehow. Maybe, in a way, I felt like I was finally having my own sense of closure. I will never post or link to those photos, and really have no desire to look at them again. But having seen them, I want to try to describe some of the emotions they envoked-good and bad.
On many forums, I have seen discussions where fans confessed they looked at the photos, even studied them, but then admitted they felt overwhelmingly guilty. The guilt is understandable, because we all know how Michael felt about his privacy, and we do recognize that this is an invasion. But remember, we didn’t ask for these images to be thrust on us. Let’s not beat ourselves up. As I’ve already stated, curiosity is a natural human inclination. Michael himself was fascinated with such things. In Latoya’s first book, she described Michael one day bringing a human brain that he had managed to get from a lab, home to his bedroom. “Don’t tell mother!” he said. He was fascinated with it; wanted to study and dissect it, she said. There was nothing ‘strange” about that. He was a kid, and a boy’s nature is usually to be fascinated with “gross” things. If I know Michael, he would have gotten a laugh out of chasing Latoya and Janet around the house with that brain, giggling as they screeched and screamed.
As for the autopsy photo, I’m not even going there. That was just too much. The hospital gurney photo was sad, but to me, not gruesome or morbid. When I first saw it, I cried and had to gather myself for about five minutes. But the more I looked at it, the more I found a kind of peaceful beauty to it. Let me explain, because this is hard.
First of all, let me just say, there’s nothing beautiful about the fact that he was lying there dead, far too soon, and for reasons that are just too stupid for words. But it gave me great comfort to see that in death, he was not gross; he was as beautiful as he had always been. I have never been one of those fans who go around describing Michael in deified terms-he was not an angel, or a saint, or a god to me. He was a human being, with all the flaws and frailities of a human being. But when I saw that photo, I couldn’t help but compare it to some of the paintings I have seen of dead saints. There was an ethereal quality about it, but at the same time, something that was heartbreakingly vulnerable and sad. As I looked at his arms, so thin and stilled upon the bedsheet, gauzed with tape. I couldn’t help but think how those arms wanted to hug his children one last time; I thought of him having to go alone, to face the other side without them. I thought of how many hugs those arms had given. I thought of all the pain he had endured in his last years, and that now no one could hurt him, ever again. Call me crazy, if you want. But I just wanted to reach through that photo and stroke his hair and place a parting kiss on his cheek. I wanted to say, thank you for everything you gave us, and now, sleep well. Remember those final lines from Hamlet?
Good night, sweet prince
May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest
I guess, really, this is all just a long-winded way of saying, after two years of dread, I have now seen Michael in death. And really, it wasn’t so bad for me (I am speaking from purely personal experience, of course). It gave me peace and closure. Hopefully, no more photos will be leaked, but as many have said, the damage has already been done. Despite numerous complaints, TMZ has refused to remove the autopsy photo. I suspect it generates far too many hits for them to even consider taking it down. But we knew long ago that Harry Levin has no decency, so what else is new? I often go back and think about how hard most of us worked to get that Discovery channel reenactment of the autopsy cancelled. It almost seems in vain now. We instigated that campaign to preserve Michael’s dignity, only to have it violated anyway. The only saving grace, and only difference in this case, is the knowledge that at least-hopefully, this was done in the name of justice, rather than ratings. But however you slice it, the result is the same.
But at this point it doesn’t do much good to get our blood pressure worked up over what can’t be changed. The photos are “out there” now, and will be from here on out, no matter how hard we may work to avoid them. From my standpoint, I’ve simply decided to “own it,” as they say. I have seen the photos, I looked at them; I have made my peace with them. They are not gruesome. They are Michael. And yes, he was as beautiful in death as in life. Death could not take that away. As the old saying goes, once you’ve been faced with something you feared or dreaded, it no longer controls you. It’s like, okay, it’s happened, it’s over, take a deep breath. It wasn’t so bad. Much of this entire trail has been that way for me, to tell the truth. Thankfully, we’re almost to the light at the end of the tunnel.