NU Faculty Member is Expert on Celebrity Deaths

From Michael Jackson to Prince to Apple Founder, Steve Jobs—when celebrities die, the media goes to experts, like National University Sociology Professor, Jacque Lynn Foltyn.

Jacque Lynn Foltyn
National University Sociology Professor, Jacque Lynn Foltyn

A social theorist, Professor Foltyn has many areas of interest, including popular culture, fashion, religion, aging, and death. Her death studies specialize in representations of death in mass media, the public fascination with dead celebrities, forensics, the dead body, and disenfranchised grief.

Professor Foltyn’s perspectives on death as amusement in a death-denying culture have gained international attention and been used to train clergy and hospice workers. Journalists, bloggers, and other scholars frequently write about her work. Her scholarship has been honored by: the American Sociological Association, American Anthropology Association, and the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, UK. On the day the pop superstar, Prince, died, CNN called our faculty member. “The singers that become the subjects of ‘mourn-a-thons’ are those who have been around for a while and are quite famous,” she said. “These are our ‘intimate strangers.’ We may have been following them for decades, grown up with them. When they die, we mourn as if we knew them, because they have been part of our lives.”

Professor Foltyn also appeared on and helped shape a CBS News 48 Hours special about the death of Michael Jackson, and has been interviewed several times by BBC. She will serve as a keynote speaker at the University of York, UK in September 2016 at its international Death and Culture Conference. The conference will focus on the impact of mortality on culture, and the ways in which death has shaped human behavior, as evidenced through thought, action, production, and expression.

Her 45-minute speech will link the public fascination with death to fashion imagery and trends like “Skull Style.” Since 2009, Foltyn has headed an international conference on fashion at Oxford University. She is Editor-in-Chief of the scholarly journal, Catwalk: The Journal of Fashion, Beauty, and Style, and has written several influential articles about the connection among death, fashion, and beauty.

“Media have found me through my scholarship and other media interviews or articles about my research, and write to me at National University,” Professor Foltyn explained.  CNN, for example, read a follow-up article posted online from the CBS 48 Hours special she appeared in.

“They sent a film crew to my house and turned my living room into a studio,” she said. “CBS contacted me after noting BBC interviews and finding an article I published in 2008 on celebrity deaths in the scholarly journal Mortality. The Centre for Death and Society at University of Bath issued press releases and a podcast of my invited public lecture in 2006 that also generated interest in my work.” 

BBC discovered Professor Foltyn at a conference in the UK in 2005 and highlighted her scholarship as newsworthy, leading to coverage citing her name in close to 80 newspapers internationally.  Foltyn has been interviewed by: The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Sydney Morning Herald, among other newspapers; and numerous times by Allure and More magazines.  Professor Foltyn says that scholarly journals, such as Mortality, claim that some of her articles are among their most read.

The sociology professor noted that the “resurrected interest in death and the dead body reveal a paradoxical orientation toward the Grim Reaper.  “On the one hand, we entertain ourselves with gruesome imagery in video games, CSI styled shows, programs like The Walking Dead, and wear ‘Skull Style.’ On the other hand, we live in a modern secular society where death has receded from everyday life, people hold memorial services rather than funerals, and death is viewed as the ‘failure of a cure.’” 

She added that many Americans have never seen an actual corpse in person and are unclear about what happens after death. “Are we acknowledging death by bringing it out of the closet so macabrely, or are we attempting to master death because we fear it?” she asked.