Gone Too Soon: 6 Famous Funerals of Megastars Under 50
Just 48 when she died, Whitney Houston will be laid to rest today, her “private” funeral webcast live to millions of mourners. Let's take a look back at past funerals for stars who died too young, and the glorious chaos they left in their wake.
1. Rudolph Valentino, 31 (1926)
One of the earliest superstars of the silver screen, Rudolph Valentino died suddenly of a ruptured ulcer in 1926. During his first funeral procession in New York City, around 100,000 fans swarmed the streets, and several small riots had to be quelled by the police. The funeral home director in charge of the affair had apparently hired four actors to impersonate an Italian honor guard “sent by Benito Mussolini,” and later revealed that he had also paid the riotous New Yorkers to exaggerate their grief. At Valentino’s second funeral in Hollywood, a small plane (still something of a novelty at the time) dropped thousands of rose petals over the procession…but the lack of police action made the affair seem rather tame.
2. Elvis Presley, 42 (1977)
Despite what some hardcore fans believe, Elvis did die of a heart attack in 1977. And, yes, he was found in the bathroom. President Carter called out 300 troops to control the area around Elvis’ Graceland mansion, where as many as 80,000 fans assembled to show their respects. A fleet of white Cadillac limousines carried Elvis’ 900-lb copper-lined coffin to the cemetery to be buried next to his mother, who was herself buried in a nearly identical copper-lined coffin. But after four people threatened to steal Elvis’ body, he and his mother were reinterred on the Graceland grounds.
3. John Lennon, 40 (1980)
Beloved former Beatle John Lennon was shot by a crazed fair-weather fan, Mark David Chapman, on December 8, 1980. His wife, artist Yoko Ono, opted to cremate her husband alone without a funeral, asking people around the world to “pray for his soul” at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 14, 1980. Fans around the world gathered in public squares and observed 10 minutes of silence, including more than 100,000 people assembled in Central Park alone, where Yoko later scattered Lennon’s ashes. NYPD was called out to keep the peace, but then they remembered: these are John Lennon fans. No violence occurred.
4. Gram Parsons, 26 (1973)
Two months short of his 27th birthday, singer/songwriter Gram Parsons died of drug-related complications in Joshua Tree National Park, California. A few months before, he and his good friend Phil Kaufman had made a pact: when one of them died, the other would make sure his ashes were scattered on Cap Rock, at Joshua Tree. In order to honor his friend’s last wishes, Kaufman had to disguise himself as an undertaker and intercept Parsons’ body at the airport, where it was due to fly to New Orleans on order of Parsons’ stepfather. Kaufman and another friend drove the body to Joshua Tree in a red 1953 hot-rod Pontiac hearse, and cremated him, coffin and all, before the cops saw the flames and chased the mourners from the grave. The pair were fined $300 each, plus $750 for the coffin, and held a Gram Parsons Funeral Party to defer the costs of what they called “Gram Theft Parsons.”
5. The Notorious B.I.G., 25 (1997)
© Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis
Known to his mother as Christopher J. Wallace, rapper Biggie Smalls was slain in a 1997 drive-by shooting. Thousands of fans lined up for his funeral procession, on the sidewalks of “Do or Die” Bed-Stuy, Biggie’s childhood neighborhood in New York. After some passionate fans began climbing atop of cars, the cops began arresting people, including—accidentally—a freelance reporter for the New York Times. Mayor Giuliani defended the police action, but Big Poppa managed to mess with the po-lice once last time.
6. Graham Chapman, 48 (1989)
British comedian Graham Chapman lost his battle with throat and spinal cancer in 1989. At his funeral, fellow Monty Python mate John Cleese gave a fittingly irreverent eulogy, beginning by repeating a monologue from the famous “Dead Parrot” sketch, which he and Chapman had co-written, replacing the parrot with Chapman himself: “He has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it…and gone to meet the great Head of Light Entertainment in the Sky.” Cleese then went on to explain that Chapman was so proud of being the first person to say “s***” on British television, he would be the first to have the word “f***” spoken at his funeral. The crowd tittered. Eric Idle then led the mourners in a rousing rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Honorable Mention: Hunter S. Thompson (2005)
The late, great gonzo journalist always thought he’d die young, and gave it his best shot. Literally. Through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, he lived among Hell’s Angels, carried a gun, and subsided primarily on hard drugs and liquor. Finally, at age 67, he left a suicide note of sorts, entitled “Football Season is Over,” which included the phrase “67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring.” He shot himself in the head soon after, leaving a directive for his elaborate funeral, which was carried out a few months later with financial assistance from his friend Johnny Depp. Accompanied by red, white, and blue fireworks and strains of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Thompson’s ashes were fired out of a cannon, which in turn sat atop a tower decorated to look like a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button. Numerous guests were high on drugs throughout, and a few had to be taken away by ambulance.