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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)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

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)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

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.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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