Michael Jackson's Memorial: As Public as the Life He Led

The scene from the Michael Jackson memorial service in Los Angeles.
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The final, posthumous performance of Michael Jackson was in the transcendent tradition of his previous shows: part musical feast, part religious experience, part examination of a man who seemed not a man, but something else his public was always trying to figure out. Boy? Demigod? Alien? It was, at times and fittingly, odd. There was deep, heartfelt, intimate emotion at the public memorial, but it was mixed with the fantasy and the sequins and the Mariah Carey and the Al Sharpton.

It was very sad. It was very long. "Maybe now, Michael, they will leave you alone," Jackson's brother Marlon said into a microphone at the end of the nearly three-hour remembrance and farewell. Maybe not. News reports have warned us there are impending legal battles and estate divisions and custody arrangements. The world will be breathing Michael Jackson gossip for a long time. But in a society obsessed with closure, this occasion at least signified the official end of the country's 12-day period of frenzied mourning, and the completion of Michael Jackson's 12-day transformation from ostracized to beloved.

The nationally televised and endlessly Twittered memorial took place yesterday morning at Los Angeles's Staples Center, where as recently as the night before his June 25 death the singer had rehearsed for a planned London comeback tour.

The public event immediately followed a private family service at Forest Lawn cemetery in Hollywood Hills, and a long, slow funeral procession through the streets of L.A., which was commented on by swarms of news crews hovering in helicopters. The cavernous Staples Center was filled with the estimated 17,000 fans who won a ticket lottery entered by 1.6 million people for the privilege of being there. They were given wristbands.

"I couldn't believe when he died," said John Castanon, 60, a mechanic from San Dimas whose wife had won two passes to the memorial. He fought back tears as he described seeing Jackson perform in 1969. Castanon said he was honored, 40 years later, to be at Jackson's final appearance.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted to Be There. In a sharp break from a culture convinced that timeliness is obsolete, that one can always catch the replay on TiVo or YouTube, everyone wanted to see this show live. Some seemed to already be looking back from the future, planning on how they would tell their grandchildren that they were there. Celebrities turned out en masse, for a starry program that included everyone from Motown record producer legend Berry Gordy to Queen Latifah to Kobe Bryant to Martin Luther King III and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Diana Ross and Nelson Mandela couldn't make it, so they sent words of sympathy through an emissary, Smokey Robinson, the first speaker on the program.

Jackson's wall of brothers, seated in the front row next to his parents, sisters and three children, all wore matching yellow ties, and single sequined gloves, some on right hands, some on left, as if they had thriftily split pairs of them.

Jesse Jackson was there, just to be in the audience, as were Dionne Warwick and Spike Lee and Barbara Walters.

Once all of the guests, famous and non-famous, were there and seated and hushed, Michael Jackson himself arrived, in an ornate gold casket draped in flowers and brought to a position of prominence in the center of the stage.

And thus Jackson became a part of his own memorial, a showman even in death.

What a spectacular show it was, performed against a backdrop of simulated stained-glass windows and drifting clouds.

Carey, wearing a long gown with a plunging mesh neckline -- demure, for her -- performed her version of the Jackson 5 hit "I'll Be There," and looked meaningfully toward Jackson's casket.

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