CYBERPUNK: Death Hags 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 draw the Grim Reaper by 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. There, you'll find maps to Where the Stars Died; photos of country stars' graves; and spectacular tales of how musicians died 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 -- the more gruesome the better -- from child actor Judith Barsi to Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane. Like Kenneth Anger's gripping (though factually questionable) book Hollywood Babylon, these sites traffic in grisly details with little remorse, and only the most principled of us can help from paging through them.
The most thoroughly researched site of the lot, and the most riveting, is Find a Death. Michaels strings together narratives of celebs' fateful last hours, using everything from suicide notes to photos of the life-terminating bullets to illustrate his tales.
"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 exact locations where celebrities departed from this dimension. Michaels has lain on the bed in which John Belushi O.D.'ed and touched the very pillar Princess Diana's car rammed into. And since he always took plenty of photos on these forays, it seemed natural to post them. No matter if, say, a shot of the house where Del Shannon blew his brains out looked like a photo of any other house; once wrapped into Michael's narratives, such a snap took on an eerily compelling quality.
If sightseeing death spots sounds like a strange way to spend one's vacations, what is even stranger is that once Michaels started posting his material, other people started sending similar photos and information. A few even shared firsthand accounts. 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 oldest and most respected of death sites, Find a Grave, which features an enormous photo database of 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."
About 20,000 visitors a day pass through Find a Grave. 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. Here people contribute (pre-death) photos of loved ones along with snaps of their tombstones. You can take a "virtual" tour through the section, 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.
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 act, 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."
Joab Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.