By Scott Collins and Susan King
July 11, 2009
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.
To me what is important is that michael jackson should be buried.