Open casket funerals are often the subject of heated debate. For some people they can be pretty disturbing, as there is understandably something unnerving about seeing a loved one lying motionless with their soul clearly departed from their body. However, being able to see a loved one for one last time makes closure possible to many others. These celebrities had open casket funerals as their last farewell to their loved ones and their devoted fans.
James Brown was “the Godfather of Soul,” a music legend and a larger-than-life character. Brown began his career in the 1950s and continued on until the end of his life. He was also known for his social activism, involvement in the Civil Rights movement as well as the not-so-good aspects of his life including bad relationships and drug problems. In 2006, Brown was still keeping up as a performer and went to the dentist to have work done on his trademark smile. However, the dentist was concerned about his appearance and urged him to see the doctor right away. Only a short time later, Brown passed away from heart failure and pneumonia. Reportedly, his last words were “I’m going away tonight.”
In the early 1990s, River Phoenix was the “It” boy of Hollywood. He had it all: looks, fame, and youth. Many believe his career would have soared to massive heights if he had lived longer. Sadly, Phoneix partied far too hard one night and it took his life. While out with his girlfriend Samantha Mathis, along with his siblings Rain and Joaquin Phoenix, he visited Johnny Depp’s club the Viper Room. Depp was reportedly present and was onstage at the time of the incident. Phoenix overdosed on cocaine and morphine. Sadly, he could not be revived and he died at the age of 23.
In life, Bruce Lee was a larger-than-life figure – an actor, husband, father, and the master and founder of Jeet Kune Do. To many of his fans, he seemed invincible. To many of his modern fans, his on-screen vibrancy makes it seem as though he still lives. Lee was extremely dedicated to being physically fit, which is why his death in 1973 at the young age of 32 came as an absolute shock. He apparently suffered from cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain, after having an allergic reaction a painkiller he took for a headache. There is still some dispute about whether the swelling occurred before or after he took the medication. Because of the strange and tragic manner of his death, there have been countless conspiracy theories surrounding the event, including that he may have been poisoned.
Mother Teresa was a Roman Catholic nun who achieved international fame for founding the Missionaries of Charity, a congregation which vows “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor.” Teresa was born in Albania and first took her vows with at age 21. She went on to live a life of service to others and was particularly moved to help the poor and sick. Even before her death in 1997, Mother Theresa was often spoken about in a saintly manner from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. She was officially canonized in 2016 and is now known within the Church as Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
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Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States. He led the United States through the Civil War and managed to preserve the Union, which came out victorious. He also paved the way for the abolition of slavery. While attending a play at Ford Theater, President Lincoln was assassinated by actor John Wilkes Booth. The Civil War was coming to a close and Booth was a spy of the losing Confederacy. After Lincoln’s death, his remains were carried on a train on a tour of seven different states, for a period of three weeks. He was laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois at Oak Ridge Cemetery, at the “Lincoln Tomb.”
Selena Quintanilla-Pérez hailed from the city of Corpus Christi, Texas. She began singing as a child and quickly grew to become the reigning Queen of Tejano music throughout both the United States and Mexico. She was murdered by her agent, who had become obsessed with the singer, in 1995. Before her death, Selena was about to embark on a cross-over music journey with her first English language album. As a Mexican-American, she was particularly well-loved within that community and the loss was devastating. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people came to see and pay respect to Selena, who laid in an open casket. Despite being deeply grieved within her community, Selena’s talents surpassed race and ethnic lines and she became well-loved throughout the world for her beautiful voice.
Punk musician GG Allin explored many taboo subjects in his music as well as in his performances which often included self-mutilation and other controversial acts. His antics sometimes got him arrested. Allin also once claimed that if he were not a musician he would probably be a serial killer or murderer. For several years before his death he said that he would kill himself while onstage, however, he ended up dying backstage from an accidental heroin overdose. Per his wishes, his body was unpreserved and put on display during the open casket funeral. He also wore his typical outfit of a black leather jacket and jock strap. Accompanying him in his final rest was a bottle of Jim Beam, and his friends also placed drugs and booze into his mouth throughout the funeral.
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Etta James was known for her powerhouse vocals which she showcased in her most famous song, “At Last.” Etta had a life marred by personal struggles which included fighting her way through heroin addiction, suffering physical abuse, and even going to jail. However, she ultimately was able to make a comeback and her incomparable voice will never be forgotten. In 2011, Etta was diagnosed with leukemia and she passed away from the illness one year later, not long before her 74th birthday. The Reverend Al Sharpton proceeded over her funeral and Stevie Wonder, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé each performed a tribute song during the services.
June Carter Cash
Singer and songwriter June Carter Cash got her start during the early days of country music. She later became well-known for her love story with Johnny Cash. Their long love affair was memorialized in the film Walk the Line, which starred Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. Cash died in 2003 following complications from heart valve replacement surgery, at the age of 73. No one was more grief-stricken at her funeral than Johnny, who ended up passing away only months later. Many have said that his death was due to a broken heart. Cash’s 45-year-old daughter Rosie also died only months later and all three are buried together near their home in Tennessee.
Chris Kelly was a member of popular 1990s hip-hop duo Kris Kross, along with friend Chris Smith. The duo were just young kids when their album first hit the airwaves in 1992 and they quickly became known for their eye-catching style of wearing their clothes backward. As Kris Kross began to fade from the spotlight over time, Kelly began to experience issues with drug addiction. Ultimately the illness claimed his life in 2013 at the young age of thirty-four years old. After his death, mega-producer Jermaine Dupri, who had worked with Kelly, tweeted that Kelly had been “the son he never had.”
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Hank Williams is regarded as one of the most important people to ever contribute to country music. He is also recognized for his contributions to music across the board and has been inducted into multiple Halls of Fame, including the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Williams was born with spina bifida which caused him lifelong back pain. Ultimately, he turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with the severe pain he felt. Unfortunately, this turned into a severe addiction. Williams tragically died at 29 years old due to a heart attack, which many feel was due to his drug usage. His son, Hank Williams Jr. and grandson, Hank III, have gone on to follow in his footsteps as musicians.
The King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, is still heralded as one of the most important figures of all time in music. He was one of the first to bring “rock” to the mainstream, during a time when he even the gyrating of his hips was considered to be indecent. Despite many parents’ initial views of him, he became well loved around the world and also released his own gospel albums. He also starred in tons of films as the romantic leading man. Like so many others in the industry, Presley struggled with drug addiction. Toward the end of his life, Presley looked physically different than the stunning young man of his twenties, which can be blamed on his problems with drugs. He began to struggle immensely with his health and died due to cardiac arrest at age 42.
Beautiful movie star Grace Kelly was a top leading lady in Hollywood for a number of years. She was particularly known as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde muses. Grace became even more famous when she became the Princess of Monaco after marrying Prince Rainier at age 26. She then retired from her film career and went on to have three children with the Prince. In 1982, Kelly had a stroke while driving with her daughter Princess Stephanie. Stephanie attempted to commandeer the steering wheel but the car went off a cliff and Kelly later died from her injuries. She was 52.
Marvin Gaye first came to fame as a part of the Motown music scene in the 1960s, and is largely credited with helping to shape the sound. He later released concept albums which were quite introspective and political, with tracks like “What’s Goin’ On?”. His influence has now spawned multiple generations. Entire genres like neo-soul credit him with their creation. Gaye struggled with drug use in his life, however, that is not what caused his death. Unfortunately, his demise came in a far more tragic way. Marvin was shot and killed by his own father after he attempted to intervene in an argument between his parents. Marvin was killed one day before his 45th birthday.
Legendary blues guitarist B.B. King become a well-respected and adored musician throughout many genres of music. By the 1980s, he was considered one of the most important blues musicians ever and has even been called “The King of the Blues.” He continued performing into his old age. King rose from next to nothing, being born on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. He even worked on a cotton gin in his youth. In 2015, B.B. King died at the age of 89 after suffering from congestive heart failure and complications from his diabetes. Mourners flocked from around the globe to pay their respects to the legendary bluesman, and former Presidents Clinton and Obama both sent letters.
Bela Lugosi was a Hungarian-born actor who is probably best remembered for his role as Dracula. He also lent his likeness and voice to many other horror productions over the years. Although he imagined having the career of a classic actor, he found himself typecast after his role as Dracula. Fortunately, he came to embrace it. Lugosi served in WWI and was the recipient of some injuries which caused him issues throughout his life. In his later life he found himself to be increasingly dependent on painkillers. Bela died of a heart attack in 1956 at age 73. He was buried wearing one of his Dracula costumes. He did not request the costume, but his son and fifth wife were said to have made the decision.
Musician Rick James was active in the music scene since the 1960s when he was signed by Motown Records. However, he really hit it big in the late 1970s and early 1980s with songs like “Super Freak” and “Give It To Me Baby.” Throughout the 1980s, James was plagued by his severe addiction to cocaine. In 1993 he was convicted of kidnapping and torturing two women while under the influence of the drug. Upon his release in the later 1990s, his health took a turn for the worse and he stayed out of the spotlight for the most part. In 2004, he was featured on Chappelle’s Show in a segment called True Hollywood Stories. In it, Charlie Murphy told the story of his relationship with James. The hilarious account of their relationship catapulted James back into modern-day fame and he began performing again. Sadly, he passed away that same year from heart failure. Rick James was just 56 years old.
Although Emmett Till was not a celebrity in typical standards, the fame he gained posthumously is perhaps the most meaningful of this entire list. Till was a 14-year-old African American boy, born in raised in Chicago. In 1955, he visited relatives in Mississippi. After he spoke to a 21-year-old white woman named Carolyn Bryant, Till was accused of flirting or whistling at her. A short time later, Bryant’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam went to Till’s great uncle’s home and abducted the boy. He was beaten and mutilated before being shot in the head, and his body dumped in the river. He was found three days later, and his disfigured body was returned to Chicago.
Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till, insisted that her son have a public funeral with an open casket because she wanted the world to see what had been done to her young son. Thousands of people attended his funeral and even more viewed photographs taken. Emmett Till is credited with paving the way for the Civil Rights movement that came a short time later.
Mexican painter Frida Kahlo rose to prominence in the early to mid-1900s and still retains her popularity today. Kahlo is an icon within the Mexican American community, the feminist movement, and also within the LGBTQ community. She suffered through a horrible bus accident when she was 18 years old. Several people were killed and Kahlo was impaled in the pelvis area. She continued to struggle with pain from the incident for the rest of her life. Her painting was also largely influenced by the horrible accident. After suffering immensely in her later life, even enduring a leg amputation, Frida died at age 47 years old. It is believed that she took a deliberate overdose of pain medication although the official cause of death was “pulmonary embolism”
Soul singer Sam Cooke is probably best remembered for his rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Cooke is often referred to as the King of Soul. Some music historians have even referred to him as the creator of soul music, paving the way for the likes of Aretha Franklin and Al Green. In 1964 Cooke was involved in a strange incident which ultimately took his life. The police were called to a hotel first for a kidnapping and not long after for a shooting. When police responded they found the musician’s body wearing only a sports jacket and shoes. He had been shot once in the chest by the hotel manager, Bertha Franklin. She claimed that Cooke had broken into her office and attacked her, however, others immediately cast suspicion on her story. A woman had accompanied him to the hotel but later it was revealed that she was the one who called the police about being kidnapped. However, those who had seen her and Sam leave together said she left willingly. Either way, Cooke was murdered and his last words were said to be “Lady, you shot me.” His family believes that he may have been set up because he was reportedly missing money that he had on him at the time.
Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were a young couple that fell in love and went on a crime spree that culminated in their death. Their rampant criminal activity also led to a legendary status which stands to this day. Their crimes consisted mostly of robbery although they did kill people who got in their way, including nine police officers. In 1934, they were spotted and ambushed by a posse of four officers. Parker and Barrow fired over 130 rounds and their car was absolutely riddled with gunfire. Because of their notoriety, people gathered outside the funeral homes attempting to catch glimpses of their deceased bodies. Bonnie was 23 and Clyde was 25 at the time of their deaths.
Malcolm X was an African American Muslim and activist. Born Malcolm Little, he was not afraid to speak his mind nor did he sugarcoat the truth of what African American people endured for many years in the United States of America. He had a rough upbringing after his father was killed when he was six years old. His mother was institutionalized when he was 13. After that, he grew up in foster homes and later got into trouble for larceny and breaking and entering. His time in prison was when his life really turned around. He joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Malcolm X. The Nation of Islam believed in black supremacy and also believed in the separation of black and white Americans. For this reason, the Nation rebuked the civil rights movement. In 1964, Malcolm X officially broke with the Nation of Islam and switched over to Sunni Islam instead. He disavowed racism and promoted other tenets which include black self-determination and self-defense. In February of 1965, he was assassinated by members of the Nation of Islam. His viewing was attended by tens of thousands of people.
Eva Perón was the wife of the Argentinian President Juan Perón, however, she became famous entirely on her own. She is an iconic figure in popular culture and is often referred to as “Evita.” There was even a musical made about her life, which starred Madonna. Perón was also notably an early feminist who supported women’s suffrage. By 1951, her popularity had grown so tremendously that she garnered the Vice President ticket while running with her husband, which was unheard of for a woman in the 1950s. Unfortunately, she also began suffering from poor health and was soon diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was the first Argentinian to undergo chemotherapy, but the cancer had already metastasized. Perón died in 1952 at the age of 33. Some three million people attended her funeral in streets of Buenos Aires. Her body was embalmed with glycerin and put on public display until 1955 when there was a military coup. Her remains have since been buried in Buenos Aires.
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Chris Henry was an American football star who played for the Cincinnati Bengals for five seasons, as a wide receiver. Despite his early success in the NFL, he later faced a string of issues with the law including marijuana possession charges, assault, and drunk driving. He was later suspended from the league in 2007 and waived by the Bengals in 2008. The following year, Henry was involved in a tragic accident when he fell out of the back of a moving truck while fighting with his girlfriend Loleini Tonga, with whom he shared three children. Henry died of head trauma at age 26. An autopsy later revealed that he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalitis), likely brought on by his years of playing football.
Jazz legend Billie Holiday will forever be remembered for her striking vocal style. Throughout the 1930s she achieved much success before facing massive struggles in the 1940s. Holiday struggled primarily with drug addiction and alcoholism which affected her voice in her later years. By 1959, she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and attempted to stop drinking although she soon relapsed. That same year she was hospitalized, and while laying in bed was arrested by the police. Holiday had been targeted for many years by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and was handcuffed while she laid dying. Billie Holiday died at age 44, however, her legend lives on today.
Jesse James is now known as a legendary outlaw, but in his day he was considered by law enforcement to be a criminal. James was primarily a bank and train robber and was part of the “James-Younger Gang.” Although in modern media he has often been depicted as a Robin Hood type, there is no evidence that he practiced such charity in real life. Towards the end of his life, his gang was nearly killed off after a failed robbery, with only a few members remaining. He only trusted the Ford brothers, Robert and Charley, who were part of his gang. However, it was ultimately Robert Ford who killed James by shooting him in the head and back. The betrayal was in order to receive a reward offered by the Governor of Missouri. Jesse James died at age 34 in 1882.
Whitney Houston had the voice of an angel, the likes of which we might not ever hear again. Her powerhouse vocals and beautiful looks propelled her to fame in the 1980s and 1990s. However, with fame came trouble. Houston began to struggle immensely with drug addiction during her marriage to Bobby Brown. Ultimately, it was drugs that took her life after she accidentally overdosed and drowned in a bathtub in a hotel room in 2012. Sadly, Whitney’s young daughter Bobbi followed in her tragic footsteps only three years later, dying in almost the same exact manner as her mother. May they both rest in peace.
Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher, and undoubtedly one of the most important voices and leaders of the Civil Rights movement. His “I have a dream” speech is still one of the most-quoted speeches of all time. Sadly, at the height of his work and at the young age of 39, Dr. King was assassinated. One day before his death, he addressed the possibility of being killed in a speech called “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop.” He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Dr. King died on April 4, 1968.