Last week, the National Enquirer had us reeling from a morbid photo shoot in which a model was paid to pose as Whitney Houston’s dead body. This week, they take it to a whole new level: The tabloid printed open-coffin images from Whitney Houston’s viewing. That’s her corpse on the cover. While it is customary, in certain cultures, for family and friends to gather for a final viewing of the dead, this particular image is invasive in that the viewing was not for public consumption. But here it is, at your grocery store checkout. The publication was certainly not invited to the funeral home in Newark, and must have paid someone for an illicit cameraphone picture.
But when it comes to photos of the dead, this is less out-of-the-norm than you might think. The New York Times published an image of Muammar Gaddafi’s bloody corpse on the front page in October of last year; after the horrible earthquake in Haiti, photographs of corpses accompanied many news reports, in an attempt to convey the sheer scope of the tragedy.
Whether or not a printing a photo of a corpse is newsworthy — or ethical — is arguable, and there are strong cases for both sides: Images are news. Post-mortem photography has provided closure for the living for over 150 years.
The issue will be at newsstands and checkout lines in grocery stores across the country, where fans may wince, then reach out and spend $3.79 for a glimpse of their beloved star’s final moments. Often when faced with news that someone is deceased, our reaction is, “I can’t believe it.” Funerals and viewings offer a concrete touchstone. Seeing is believing. That said: The context is upsetting (though, to be honest, not terribly surprising), since we can assume that the Houston family did not grant permission for the image to be printed, and someone made a wad of cash from its sale. It’s also disturbing because Whitney’s “last photo” is in the same issue as a story about Courtney from The Bachelor’s “pregnancy drama” and an article titled “Ashton Kutcher Goes Cougar Hunting Again.”