Choosing whose death to mourn is not consistent in our culture

“It probably did not come as a surprise when the autopsy results for actors Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger were released last week. Both died of accidental overdoses. Renfro, who had long fallen off the radar because of legal and substance abuse problems, died of an overdose of heroin and morphine.”

It probably did not come as a surprise when the autopsy results for actors Brad Renfro and Heath Ledger were released last week.

Both died of accidental overdoses.

Renfro, who had long fallen off the radar because of legal and substance abuse problems, died of an overdose of heroin and morphine.

He was best known for his break-out role in The Client and his creepy performance in Apt Pupil. He was also known as a junkie who was consorting with undesirables on Skid Row.

Ledger, who was easily still at the top of his game, died from a lethal combination of six medications. According to reports, Oxycontin, Hydrocodone, Valium, Xanax, Restoril and Unisom were in Ledger’s system.

Ledger, of course, was A-list. He was known for his roles in Brokeback Mountain, The Patriot and 10 Things I Hate About You.

Ledger was mourned and memorialized.

Renfro’s death was barely a blip on the media radar.

And, of course, everyone recalls last year’s media frenzy – and ensuing scorn – over Anna Nicole Smith’s accidental death.

Many celebrities die in this fashion. Yet, we pick and choose who gets to be remembered as a promising star who was tragically lost too soon. The others, we sneer at with an attitude that they had it coming.

If Amy Winehouse or Britney Spears die in this fashion, we’ll scorn them as losers for whom we had no respect.

When Chris Farley, John Belushi and Elvis Presley died of the same fate, people mourned.

Accidental drug overdoses claim the lives of thousands each year. The death rate is second only to automobile accidents.

All of these people struggled with substance abuse. All of them behaved in a manner that caused their demise; for some, it was heroin or cocaine, for others, prescription medications. So why do we tolerate the behavior of a few and wash our hands of the others?

Apparently, only the deaths of some are tragic – the deaths of those who entertain us. The others we discard like garbage in the street.

Oddly, or perhaps not so, we do the same thing to ordinary people. It’s a trap many of us fall into.

When someone we care about and love dies a drug-related death, we see it as tragic and earth-shattering. When strangers die of accidental overdoses, they’re junkies and crackheads.

It’s a clever use of semantics.

It’s also a telling statement about how we value others and human life in general.

Of course, we can’t save anyone from drug abuse and addiction, other than ourselves. But, with our attitude, we can’t help anyone, either.