Till Death Do Us Unite
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 like-minded people."
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 wife-to-be).
"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 undertake alone?
"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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