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Is it wrong to profit from death?

I was terribly saddened by Pat Tillman’s death. His choice to trade a multi-million dollar annual salary and celebrity in exchange for a smaller paycheck, honor and service to the rest of us was a beautiful example of the truth that money isn’t everything and that nothing is priceless, even human life. He felt that all the glory of the NFL was less than the internal glory from risking his life to preserve freedom.

Tillman’s death has spawned a controversy—after his death, hundreds of pieces of memorabilia showed up on Ebay—jerseys, cards and who knows what. A lot of people are upset about this. I’ve heard sports talk show rail against the morality of it without realizing that by talking about Pat Tillman, they too were profiting from his death—keeping listeners by talking about an interesting subject that’s on people’s minds. One host, Mike Greenberg ofMike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN made the thoughtful point that the auction of memorabilia was something like the increase in value of an artist’s paintings after his or her death. Now that we know the supply is finite, the price goes up. That’s a nice bit of economics, but Greenberg and his co-host Mike Golic still labeled the Tillman auction as distasteful.

Is it distasteful or outrageous to profit from death? Most of the reactions that this is outrageous seem to forget that an auction has two sides—a buyer and a seller. Those sellers are finding buyers, people who out of patriotism, honor, hero-worship or investment, want to buy something that has something to do with Pat Tillman. By buying those items, they are saying that they value the items more than the seller. Nothing outrageous about that, and actually a good thing. The sale insures that the goods are more appreciated—they’re in the hands of people who care about them. Without the price spike that came with the death of Tillman, the people who suddenly wanted to feel connected to Tillman by having something of his, would be unable to link up with those who are not so passionate.

What is distasteful perhaps, is the idea that when someone dies, your first thought isn’t sadness or mourning but hey, now that Pat Tillman autographed football you bought last year is now worth a mint. Woo-hoo! That is distasteful, but I have no idea how people feel who are putting those items up for sale.

Some are suggesting that the profits people are making should go to charity. That’s a nice idea. Charity’s a good thing. I’m sure some sellers will donate some money to charity. And others will fund other pleasures from their profits, some sublime and some tawdry.