When Icons Die Young

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Heath Ledger passed away only Tuesday, but his transformation is already under way, from acclaimed actor to most-searched Internet term, from film star to cultural touchstone.

The blogosphere went into overdrive. In two days his memorial page on Facebook had over 30,000 members. The entertainment Web site TMZ generated over 74 pages of user comments. Hundreds of eulogies for the 28-year-old Australian appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald’s site.

What accounts for this need to pay public tribute? Successive generations have felt that impulse — the need to make sense of untimely death, and even justify it, by celebrating the dead young person in an outsize way, or, every so often, to attend the funeral of someone they don’t know.

When the actor Rudolph Valentino lay in state in 1926 at the age of 31, more than 50,000 fans showed up. In 1955, Baby Boomers grieved the passing of the 24-year-old James Dean, who received two posthumous Academy Award nominations on his way to the pantheon.

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