For some fans, celebrity deaths just a second act
This summer at Dearly Departed Tours, business has never been better -- and that was before Michael Jackson’s sudden death. In the days since, the company that drives tour buses to spots where celebrities have met their end has added a stop at the rented Holmby Hills mansion where the pop star collapsed.
People are so fascinated with Hollywood’s history of death and crime that Dearly Departed has added 100 tours a month compared with a year ago, said owner Scott Michaels. His clientele have always wanted to see where the Manson family murders took place, where Marilyn Monroe lived. These days, Michaels said, the first thing people ask about is the Jackson site.
That leads to the inevitable speculation about the final disposition of his remains, so far shrouded in mystery.
“If he’s buried somewhere where the public has access to it, it’s going to be Graceland West,” Michaels said.
The real Graceland, Elvis Presley’s world-famous mansion, attracts 600,000 visitors annually and is one of the top home tours in the country. A “VIP tour” that includes a swing past Presley’s grave costs $69 per adult.
Assuming Jackson’s body ends up in a tomb that fans can find, the spot could become a shrine for the ages, experts in celebrity worship say, akin to Graceland or Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, a mecca for rock pilgrims, a magnet for makeshift memorials and an eternal nuisance to French authorities.
Wonder why there’s no pilgrimage to the tombs of rock stars John Lennon and Kurt Cobain? Their families had their remains cremated, with ashes either scattered or given to a survivor, leaving no shrine for posterity, no scene for the hordes.
On the other hand, visit Bob Marley’s mausoleum in Jamaica, said to be sacred to Rastafarians, and you can buy souvenirs of the late reggae star at the adjoining tourist center.
Visitors steadily trek to Monroe’s grave in Westwood -- and for those who can’t make the trip, there are video tours on YouTube.
Soon after news of Jackson’s collapse June 25, mourners and looky-loos jammed the street outside his home. Michaels waited five or six days to bus in customers, after “the mental people started leaving.”
Some might object to such a description of celebrity death-worshipers, the kind of devotees who imbue these grave sites with the hushed reverence accorded saints’ tombs. But even academic research suggests that celebrity death fixation can get a little, well, crazy.
In a recent study (“Elvis: Dead and Loving It -- the Influence of Attraction, Nostalgia, and Risk in Dead Celebrity Attitude Formation”), four researchers at the University of Memphis noted that “celebrity worship is often associated with poor mental health, such as social dysfunction, depression, and anxiety” as well as a “lack of education.”
Yet ours is a celebrity-obsessed culture, and even for the sane among us, that obsession does not necessarily end with a celebrity’s death. Before Jackson’s passing, the university researchers polled 161 college students and discovered the most popular dead celebrity among the students was Chris Farley, followed by Heath Ledger, Bernie Mac, Marley, Tupac Shakur and Presley. Monroe was No. 9; Morrison did not make the list at all.
“There’s a thread running there,” USC professor Leo Braudy, who has extensively studied celebrity culture, said of the roster.
Braudy argues that show business is a “secular religion,” and thus certain dead celebrities come to be seen as “secular martyrs” worthy of elaborate displays of devotion.
“It’s someone who’s committed suicide or has died before his time,” he said. “Someone cut off, a person of lost potential.” Thus the posthumous cults for Cobain, Lennon and James Dean, all of whom died unexpectedly (and violently) and who, perhaps as a consequence, ranked high in the dead-celebrities survey.
The phenomenon of the celebrity martyr, Braudy said, can be traced to silent-movie star Rudolph Valentino, whose 1926 death after an appendicitis operation sparked a riot at the New York funeral home where the service was held.
But fame is relative and memories can be short. Today, Valentino’s crypt in the Hollywood Forever cemetery attracts scant attention beyond film buffs. On a recent visit, the crypt was bedecked with vases of dead flowers. Three tourists snapped a picture but then quickly wheeled away to look at the crypt for actor Peter Finch.
As Braudy said, “Once the generation passes that had an emotional connection” to the dead celebrity, the worship phenomenon is “more of a historical interest.”
But as long as a VIP’s memory remains fresh, his or her grave site can become a major hassle for the living.
Celebrity graves can make tempting targets for criminals. A few months after his 1977 death, the remains of silent film star Charlie Chaplin were stolen from the Corsier-sur- Vevey cemetery in Switzerland. (They were later recovered and reburied.) Dean, killed in a 1955 car crash, was buried in his hometown of Fairmont, Ind., where the headstone has been chipped away by fans and was once even stolen intact. (It was found and returned.)
Morrison’s grave in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris but also an ongoing nightmare for French officials. An early marker was filched in 1973. In 1981, a new gravestone and bust were erected on the 10th anniversary of his death. That bust was defaced and then disappeared in 1988. More recently, Morrison’s family placed a flat stone on the grave, which is under surveillance by security guards.
This may explain why many celebrities and their families cremate the remains or keep their final resting spots away from prying eyes and hands. At Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, the remains of stars locked away in vaults inaccessible to the general public include Humphrey Bogart, Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis Jr.
But graves can be big business. At least three websites tell where stars rest: findadeath.com, findagrave.com and beneathlosangeles.com.
And it’s a living for people like Benny Hill. The veteran limo driver runs a “grave line” tour service that shepherds tourists to the graves of celebrities such as Farrah Fawcett, who was recently buried in the same Westwood cemetery were Monroe was buried, as well as Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Burt Lancaster.
“They want to see where people get killed or died, murdered or buried,” Hill said.
Even in the celebrity-packed Westwood cemetery, there’s no doubt which decedent has the most sought-after grave. Rumor has it that other celebrities have bid top dollar for the plot adjacent to Monroe’s, Hill said. And then there’s the physical evidence.
Monroe’s grave marker is “the dirtiest one there,” Hill said. “You look at the wall and there is lipstick, fingerprints, handprints.”
Times staff writer Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.