Till Death Do Us Unite
When Frances Bavier, Aunt Bee of The Andy Griffith Show
fame, died of heart failure in 1989 at the age of 86, she left
behind a home reeking of cat pee--not surprising, as the rotund
matron had 14 kitties. "She didn't keep a tidy home," according to
Scott Michaels' Find a Death Web site. In
text accompanying photos of Bavier's two-story brick home in Siler
City, N.C., Michaels notes, "The plaster was peeling, the carpets
frayed, and the upholstery worn."
Some other fun facts from Find a Death: Contrary to popular
belief, singer "Mama" Cass Elliot, who passed on in 1974 in a London
apartment, didn't die from choking on a sandwich (an urban legend
sprung from a London Times report), but rather from "fatty
myocardial degeneration due to obesity," according to her death
certificate, which is posted on the site. (Four years later, Who
drummer Keith Moon would expire in the same top-floor flat.) And
when Bela Lugosi shuffled off this mortal coil in 1956, his wife and
one of his ex-wives had to pool resources to give the nearly
impoverished actor a decent burial.
Everyone from People magazine to Inside Edition
makes a mint bringing the rich and famous down to our level,
enlightening us on Celine Dion's new baby or Helen Hunt's New York
apartment. But if you want the inside skinny on how celebrities
succumb to that greatest equalizer of all, the place to start is the
Web. Here you'll find maps to Where the Stars
Died; photos of country stars' graves at The Nashville
Underground; and sordid or spectacular rock-death tales at
Fuller Up: The
Dead Musician's Directory, named after '60s singer Bobby
Fuller, who died after being force-fed gasoline. There are also
countless pages devoted to exhuming the demise of famous
individuals, from child actor Judith
Barsi to Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane (Phoenix
Exposed). Like Kenneth Anger's gripping (though factually
questionable) book Hollywood Babylon, these sites traffic in
grisly details with no remorse.
But the most thoroughly researched death Web site, and the most
riveting, is Find a Death. Michaels strings together gripping
narratives of celebs' last hours, using everything from suicide
notes to photos of the life-terminating bullets.
"Stars live in many places, but the places that they've died are
truly historic," Michaels, a erudite and energetic Londoner, tells
me by phone. The 38-year-old TV researcher started the directory two
years ago as an outgrowth of his 15-year hobby of hunting down the
locations where celebrities have died. Michaels has lain on the bed
in which John Belushi died and touched the pillar Princess Diana's
car rammed into; it seemed natural to post his photos of these
travels. And once he did, other people started sending in photos and
even firsthand accounts of celebrity deaths. (For instance, one
reader saw the Notorious B.I.G. the night he was shot. She claims he
looked "high as a kite.")
Michaels finds comfort in such solidarity. "At first I thought I
was a bit weird," he says. "But with the Web, I found a community of
The epicenter of this community, Michaels says, is that
granddaddy of death sites, Find a Grave, which
features an enormous photo database of the tombstones of the
famously departed. Like Michaels, Find a Grave caretaker Jim Tipton,
a 28-year-old Web designer from Salt Lake City, developed an
interest in grave hunting years ago; in his college days he made a
pilgrimage to see Al Capone's grave in Chicago (with his
"Many people say it's morbid," Tipton says of his field of
interest. "But in a way, it's celebrating life rather than death.
When you are at someone's grave, you're thinking about all the great
stuff that person did during their life, not how they died.
"Plus," he adds, "there is an excitement of being only six feet
away from someone famous."
Find a Grave gets about 20,000 visitors a day, and Tipton says he
makes enough off the banner ads to devote himself full-time to
maintaining the site. Recently, he added a section of, for lack of a
better term, nonfamous graves. You can take a "virtual" tour through
the section, which features predeath photos of many of the deceased,
making it a kind of Am I Hot or Not? for
the necrophilia set. "You were a fine-looking gentlemen," one Web
surfer commented on one David Holman, who ceased to be in 1862.
"I am surprised by it. I really am in awe," Tipton says of the
immense number of visitors and contributors to the nonceleb pages.
(He's had more than 1,000 people send in photographs.)
Isn't it ironic, I muse to him, that a community would grow up
around the idea of death? Isn't the whole notion of "community" the
polar opposite of death--the one thing, after all, that we all must
"I don't know if community is the opposite of death," Tipton
replies. "In a way, a graveyard is kind of a community."
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