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Dark Tourism: The Controversy Surrounding Celebrity Grave Tours

It is not unusual in America for people to trek the country to visit and pay respects to celebrity gravesites. While it may not sound like the ideal vacation for everyone, thousands of Americans visit famous graves yearly. 

Most of us associate cemeteries as a place of privacy, solace, and mourning, not as tourist attractions. Though, in general, many don't pay close attention—what sounds fun and exciting for one person may not be the same for another. Yet, despite being a booming tourism industry, Celebrity gravesite tourism has long been trailed by controversy surrounding its moral ambiguity. 

Where Did It Begin? 

Long before motion pictures were invented, in Southern California in 1888, there was a place called Sunset Cemetery. It was reserved for a small rural population and workers at a small teaching college. In 1919, that college became the University of California, Los Angeles, and Westwood Village was developed nearby during the 1920s. So the name was changed to Westwood Village Memorial Park. 

In the mid-1950s, when he married Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio bought two crypts in Westwood. When she filed for divorce after nine months of marriage, Joe DiMaggio sold his place in the cemetery—but he never surrendered Marilyn's. When Marilyn passed of a drug overdose in 1962, Joe DiMaggio chose Westwood as her final resting place—not because it had the reputation of having other celebrities buried there but because it was also the last resting place of Marilyn's mother's friend, Grace Goddard, as well as Goddard's aunt, Ana Lower, both of whom cared for Monroe as a child. 

DiMaggio held great resentment for the entertainment industry, held it responsible for Monroe's demise, and refused to make the funeral of Marilyn a Hollywood affair, which is another reason why he chose Westwood. 

Unfortunately, Marilyn's grave did not take long to attract her fans and imitators quickly. What began with Monroe soon turned Westwood into one of the most popular places for Hollywood burial ever since. Billy Wilder, Dean Martin, Ray Bradbury, Rodney Dangerfield, and Truman Capote were all buried within Westwood. 

Today, Marilyn's marker in Westwood is the only pink marker on the grounds, not because it was designed this way but because of decades of lipstick kisses left by adoring mourners. 

Fan Frenzy

Somewhere within Westwood, in an unmarked grave, rests Frank Zappa. Fans have long speculated the choice was to avoid the prying public, and his family was concerned that a more noticeable plot might be vandalized. If that theory is correct, they had every reason to worry.

On March 2nd, 1978, two men stole the corpse of revered actor Sir Charles Chaplin from a cemetery in the Swiss village of Corsier-sur-Vevey. After a five-week investigation, police arrested Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev, who, on May 17th, led them to Chaplins' body, which they reburied in a cornfield. His family reburied his body in a concrete grave to prevent future theft. 

In Pere Lachaise, Paris, Jim Morrison's grave became a focal point for fans and tourists to gather. Graffiti, litter, and destruction were often the result. During the 20th anniversary of Jim's death, the cemetery was so frustrated with how people behaved at the gravesite and within the cemetery that they refused to let over 1,000 fans into the graveyard. The result was 21 arrests after driving a car through the cemetery gates, setting it on fire, and throwing beer bottles at the police—which may have been what Jim would have wanted, but not the cemetery employees.

John Belushi's unmarked grave (which was initially marked but was un-marked to try and protect the cemetery) on Martha's Vineyard had to be moved to an isolated corner of the graveyard after fans decided to party a little too hard on it, and the cemetery employees were greatly concerned with protecting the other gravesites. 

Some might call this kind of vandalism a natural byproduct of fame; things have been known to get much darker, such as tombs being broken into and disturbing the remains. One case in particular, the casket of former Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zandt was found on the edge of the cemetery, alongside the plastic bag containing bandmate Steve Gaines' cremated ashes.  There was a hole in the cremation bag.

The driving forces behind the controversy around celebrity graveyard tours come down to unpredictable human behavior, a touch of dark tourism, the kind that might intrigue fans of the macabre, and a little bit of the culture surrounding celebrity and views on cemetery etiquette—where many of the new generations of fans often consider these tours like a real-life star-fan encounter.

For many celebrities, being remembered forever is what they seek, and they embrace the controversial aspects of graveyard tours as part of their legacy; for others, they would prefer the solitude and peace of an unmarked or traditional graveyard burial and visitation.

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