The Whitney Houston casket photo: Was a line crossed?

Feb 23, 2012

The National Enquirer sparked outrage Wednesday when it released a cover featuring a photo purportedly showing the late Whitney Houston in a gold casket.

The existence of the Enquirer's photo, which the tabloid claims was taken at Whigham Funeral Home in New Jersey, was reported by several outlets. Some, including Jezebel and the Fox 411 blog, republished the photo at the top of their posts without any warning. The Daily Mail published the photo with the body blurred out.

Has a line been crossed? Or is this just the next step in our celebrity obsession? Do you think news outlets should have published this photo?

Live chat with Bradley Hirschfield at 12:30 p.m. ET on this topic. Submit your questions, opinions and comments now.

Read: National Enquirer publishes photo it alleges shows Whitney Houston in casket: Has a line been crossed?

Are you bothered by the casket shot of Whitney Houston?  Why? 


Personally, while I feel for her family, assuming that they did not want the photo taken and shared -- itself a very big assumption -- I am far more disturbed by the amount of attention paid to her death.  In fact, I wrestled with even inviting this conversation because in doing so, I am part of the process which feeds on and contributes to our culture's obsession with celebrity.


For me, it's a bigger issue that flags flew at half staff throughout NJ when she was burried, than it is that the Enquirer published those pictures.  What do you think?

I don't get this. I've seen lot's of casket photos. Elvis, Rick James, James Brown and others. He act's like she is the first one or all of a sudden it's a problem.

You don"t get it?  Let me try to help. 


First, I am not "acting" anything.  There are real ethical questions here, whether it is the first occurence or not.  What does it mean that people can take such pictures (not such a big deal to me), and what does it mean that people snap them up like a hungry person does a meal?  What is the public so hungry for?  What need does seeing such photos fulfill?


Second,  Not all of the funerals you described were the same.  For example, James Brown's body was on public display at New York's Apollo Theater, and then flown to Georgia for a massive and very public funeral.  His body was on jumbo screens, so pictures seemed pretty much in keeping with the spirit of his wishes.  Can the same be said for Ms. Houston?  If not, then a real ethical line was crossed.


Hope that helps.

Whitney Houston was a public figure. Unfortunately, there is very little room for privacy. While it maybe ugly, it is no longer clear what the boundaries are. How do you draw the line?

Public figures do give up certain privacies, in fact they trade on it, at least in many instances, which makes this issue so tough.  Celebs both love the trumpeting of their every move (remeber the addage about there being no "bad" publicity?) and they hate it.  After all, who wants their every move recorded and shared?


The boundaries can be murky, but in this case, IF the family did not authorize the picture to be taken and shared, whether it was legal or not to do so, it's pretty clearly unethical.  In this case, drawing the line has to do with respect for both a dead woman and her family, trumping the public's hunger for false intimacy.

Extremely, extremely poor taste. And shame on whomever sold the photo to the Enquirer. Tacky does not start to describe it. Because it was done for sensationalism... There are times when I think it *is* appropriate to show death - like wartime photos - even the photo Ebony magazine (?) released showing Emmett Till's body. But there was no reason for this.

By "no reason", i assume you mean no good reason, because there are plenty of reasons why this was done or may have been done.


For starters, what seems tacky of even grotesque to you or to me, may be tastefull and honoring to others.  "Death shots" especially if framed and presented in certain ways are thought of by many, as high tribute and an important way in which to memorialize the dead.


Also, and there is no proff of this, the family may have wanted these pictures as a way of extending WH's celbrity status.


Finally, isn't the real issue here the public which loves these images, and pays for them?  The photographer and the Enquirer were making money from the photo.  The public is shelling it out.  Who really has the bigger moral  or ethical issue?

I'm sorry, but the Whitney Houston casket photo is minor league. I would like your thoughts on the ethics of Peter Gleick misrepresenting himself as a member of the board of directors of the Heartland Institute in order to get a lowly staffer to e-mail him confidential Heartland Institute. Do you believe that the "means justify the ends" here and that he's another Daniel Ellsberg (although Ellsberg actually just copied documents that a Rand Institute employee got for him) or more like the teenager who hacked into Sarah Palin's e-mail account?

Yes, it is off topic, and no I will not address the specifics of your important question.  But I will address the core issue -- that of the ends justifying the means -- and what i say might surprise you or others.


In fact, sometimes the ends DO justify the means.  We go to war even though people, not all or even most of whom are eveil, will get killed.  We do that because the end we seek justifies doing so.  If you want a less charged example, we cut off diseased limbs to save a person's life, and in the process often render their lives quite difficult to live.


The idea that the ends never justify the means, is simply naive.  On the other hand, it is an argument that is very much like a deadly explosive -- you may need to employ it sometimes, but don;t be surprised by how dangerous doing so can be even to the one using it.

She was a much loved performer and her fans have a right to say goodbye. I don't think this was disrespectful. It helps give closure to those that loved her.

Fans have "rights"?  That's a new one!  From where do these so-called rights derive?  From the fact that they are fans?  that doesn't give them rights.  At best it gives them a bargain in which they offer adulation and cash in exchange for entertainment.  I am pretty sure that it's up to the entertainer to determine how much of themselves they want to share.  If the fans are dissatisfied, they can always take their money elsewhere.


The fact that pictures create, for some, a sense of closure is clear.  And I appreciate that as along as WH and the family were okay with it, there is nothing wrong with them having those pictures available to help fans with their grieving.


That strangers need to grieve is a little weird to me, but no stranger than the fact that words on a page can make us laugh and cry.  The truth is, art creates one-directional intimacy which can be quite real.

I think the family should have known this could happen, which is why they should have had a closed casket. When a casket is open in a furneral home, its pretty much open to the public. Nonetheless, I think it was immoral for someone to take her picture and sell it. But then again, the family should have known there would be exploiters, for isn't it they who are right away selling her clothes and jewelry in an auction?

What if the family wanted, as many families do, an open casket funeral?  Should their mourning be conducted defensively -- worrying about potential abuse more than there own need to say good bye to someone they loved?  That's not right, is it?

This ship sailed years ago. The Enquirer did the same thing when Elvis died

Same ship, new sailing.


Proves two things:

1. The Enquirer knows it's business.

2.  The public knows how to get it's needs met.

I can understand why there was a lot of attention to her death, but what bothered me was the minute-by-minute coverage of the funeral... I think it was on every cable news channel, even HNL. Mention it's going on, say who is eulogizing, perhaps a couple of live shots... then move on.

But why is yours teh right definiton of how much is too much?  BTW, I ask that as one who shares your sense of the thing, so my issue isn't with your conclusion but with the process.


The real issue for me is that between the time WH died and was burried, how many service people died overseas?  How many murders occured in our nation?  Or just in LA (where she died) and in NJ (where she was burried)?  The point is that this seemed over-the-top not in some absolute way, but relative to teh chalenges we face in the world.


But that is the point, ins't it?  This was all theater -- a distraction from the real problems we face.  There is a place for such theater, and there always has been, but we should not forget that is what it is.  Nothing more and nothing less.

yes the line was crossed. the line was also crossed when it published a photo of her alleged dead body last week. i hardly believe that was a real photo of her since supposedly CPR was attempted and the position of the body is not consistent w a position needed for CPR. When I saw it in the store, i turned the magazines around in the stand. i hope grocery store chains have good sense to refuse to carry that issue and the public has the good sense not to buy it. it is very sad the way some people think. - Post commenter HH-Higgins

On the one hand, I love that you took action.  You didn't just passively bemoan the problem, you acted to correct it.  On the other hand, is that really your place?  What about freedom of expression?  Just curious about that?

Unless a body has been damaged so that a closed casket is necessary, its normal to view the dead as part of the grieving process. We see photos of world leaders who have died, and sometimes celebrities. Its not in poor taste to publish a respectful photo of a person in a casket. - Post commenter AnnsThought

I don't about normal, but that may be because I live according to a tradition in which bodies are not tradtionally viewed and funerals are always closed casket.  Not sure what you mean by normal, other than it's normal for you.


As it happens, there is genuine debate about the value of seeing the body as a step in teh grieving process, but even assuming that you are correct --- and you may well be-- the issue was not so much taste as it was respect for the wishes of those closest to her, and the appetite for the image by others who were not.

Let's face it Rabbi Hirschfield: this is how it is today. People will try to make money any way they can. No shame. I wrote earlier to you about her jewelry and dresses being sold so soon after her funeral, most likely by her family, or if not, who? Now her ex-husband is to write a tell-all.

We don't disagree, but "that's how it is today" is no ethical argument.  If it were black people would still be slaves, Jews and Catholics would be denied jobs, etc.  We can use these events to grow beyond the unhealthy practices which saturate our culture.


Where we agree is that the ethical burden lies at least as much with those who consume this stuff as with those who dish it out.

I'm more concerned about the amount of attention paid to Houston's death, the degree to which people who never met her grieve for her. I'm all in favor of compassion and sympathy, but it seems that these days when celebrities die, there's a great outpouring of grief that doesn't jibe with any experience they've had with that celeb. Watching someone's movies/music videos/sports performance over and over again doesn't translate into a friendship after all.

this is so important, that I want to respond again to this kind of comment.  You are both 100% correct AND not seeing the whole picture.


Celebrity obsession is not healthy, and watching/listening etc. is not a real friendship.  It can however, be a real relationship.  The difference being that it is one-sided, unlike a friendship which must be mutual. 


The relationship, especially with artists and their art, is that it can touch peopel in profound ways, and when either the artist or their art is taken from that person who was so moved, there really is a griveing process.  while we should not give cover to those who can distinguish between unhealthy obsession and real appreciation of an artist, neither should we belittle the real emotion which mayaccompany the latter.

"What is the public so hungry for? What need does seeing such photos fulfill?" I believe it fulfills a human desire to displace questions and fears concerning death upon the event as it occurs to another human being. That way, human beings are able to gain some sort of vicarious knowledge regarding the mystery of death and its unknowns.

Whiel probably not the whole answer, it is certainly a wise response.  Ratehr than fight against that impulse, I would simply invite people to do one of two things in light of having had their moments of distraction:


1. Make sure that your distractions actually leave you feeling more, not less, able to re-engage with the real problems you may face.


2. See if there is someone closer to you dealing with the same issues -- someone you can know help a bit better having witnessed someone else go through that issue.


Following either or both of those practices is what turns mere distractions into genuine recreation i.e. opportunities to re-create ourselves, our relationships and the world in which we live.

It's a photo of her - dead or alive- it's still just a photo. The ethical issue is that someone did it on the sneak to make money without her approval. What really is alarming is that the flag was flown at half-staff. Granted she had a God-given talent which she shared with us, but she did not give her life to save others. I just read that we lost 7 young marines in Arizonia - young men who would give their lives for us, who would step in front of us to take the bullet. There is no comparison. And it is alarming that our society would equate a singer with such Marines. And by the way - I'm NOT pro-War. I voted against the Iraq War.

yeah, I know.  I think that Gov Christie really blew that call, and i actually have a great many good things to say about him.


Why is there outrage over this pic when it has been made explicitly clear by the Post, politicians, and others that we can freely display the bodies of soldiers returned from war?

Funny that you say that.  In fact, during the Bush administration, no pictures of coffins were allowed because they knew how upsetting it would be and therefor stir sentiment against the war.


Also, bodies that are preapred for burial are not typcially shown -- caskets are.  do you think that is the same thing?  I am not saying 'no', but i am curious.

I understand that DVD's of her funeral are going on sale, so wouldn't her body be included in the video? And, who is responsible for that? Her family?

That's news to me, but sadly, not very surprising.  I assume that yes, the family owns the rights to her funeral -- unless they sold them to whomever is now producing the DVD.

Death is a very sacred time for loved ones left behind.They want to cherish their memories and THE WORLD should respect that.They had a closed casket meaning they did not intend to share something so sacred and private w/ the world.After all,they shared this precious gift w/the world.Whether you agree or not is of NO IMPORTANCE.There has rarely been a gift of talent as great as MS WHITNEY HOUSTON!Flag at half mast,BRAVE and DUE.I will pray for you Sir.

I always appreciate people's prayers on my behalf, so thank you.  And while you seem not to think you, we actually agree, at least about teh funeral -- the decision should be up the person (if they expressed a desire before they died) and to their family.

There's a reason philosophy and theological degrees take many years of study (as I'm sure you know better than I). These are enormous issues, and extend beyond why one death means more than another. In the same vein, why does a soldier make borderline poverty wages when someone who hits a ball with a stick make millions?

It's a great question with which to "end" this conversation -- noting as you have, that there is much more to say about these issues.


Why does the soldier make so little and the ball player make so much?  There are many answers, but I will close with two:


1.  Because there are many more people who can do what teh soldier does than there are who can do what the great ball player can.  We reward people, for better or for worse, largely based on how scarce their skill set is, and how much revenue it can generate.


2.  Because, and it's realted to the second half of the answer above, the public wants it that way.  Come the day that people turned off their ball games and kept them off until those who protect us, or educate our kids, were paid more, they will be.  Not as much as ball players perhaps, but more than they are currently paid.  that's the power we have as consumers.


The real question -- are we prepared to use it?

That's it for this week.  Follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield or find me on facebook.


Thanks again to all of you for a great conversation!



In This Chat
Bradley Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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