Grave Offerings: Afterlife Fan Flair

Anointing the graves of loved ones with life's gewgaws and knick-knacks is an ancient tradition. It lets the departed know we still think about them. Flowers, photos, religious figurines, and tiny flags are placed with care. Children taken too soon are comforted with stuffed animals; pets on eternity's rainbow bridge can leap back to Earthside graves for their favorite chew-toys. With each personal offering, bereaved visitors complete a small task, and can then exit the cemetery in their corporeal vehicles without all that sleep-on-the-family plot awkwardness.

But what about our dead people of great distinction -- celebrities, sports legends, artists, inventors, leaders? Their graves are garnished with love trinkets not from family but from random fans; really, strangers. This populist fad may be old, but recently it seems on the upswing, and the soil layer between finely crafted tributes and lazy littering has been jarringly disturbed.

Paul Walker Death Site, Valencia, California, 2013.Paul Walker Death Site, Valencia, California, 2013.

News media coverage of death sites and tragedy gathering spots often present ad hoc offerings as an immediate visual proxy for collective human grief. But later, when the news vans move on and municipal cleaning crews clock out, little may be left behind. So cemeteries are the logical place to flock and deposit Afterlife Fan Flair.

We've noticed that graves with fan offerings are predominantly limited to people who've died within the past 100 years, apparently the expiration date of the American hive mind. It also might be simply that a dead 18th century poet won't appreciate an empty can of Coke Zero quite as much as a departed social media influencer.

Some beloved characters whose graves you'd expect to be embellished -- Hank Williams (d. 1953), Evel Knievel (d. 2007), and The Mother of the Mother Road (d. 2000) -- are strangely barren. Perhaps it's due to placement in burial grounds that are super-vigilant policing the eternal real estate. Fan offerings aren't meant to be permanent. The loose, ever-shifting array is somewhat assuring -- it proves that you aren't the only one obsessed with Divine (d. 1988) or Muhammad Ali (d. 2016).

We're not aware of official rules for afterlife Fan Flare, so we can make our customary wise observations....

Pennies at the feet of the Frito Lay Magician.
Pennies at the feet of the Frito Lay Magician.

Basic Offerings

The typical entry level fan display is coinage, tossed on ground slabs and perched on tombstones. Coins left on military graves are said to be an old practice, marking a comrade's visit, but we've seen pocket change on every type of fan-attracting grave.

Small stones and pebbles are also arrayed on many monument ledges and surfaces. It's especially notable as a traditional practice at Jewish burial sites, stones being more permanent than flowers to remember the dead, but also it's a mythological method of helping hold down souls where they belong. Coins and pebbles hardly suggest elaborate advance planning, but at least indicate that others care. Comedian Sam Kinison (d. 1992) rests under a sprinkling of pennies and dimes, each perhaps for a remembered comedy club zinger. More on-point are the nickels left at the obscure grave of Felix Schlag (d. 1974), who designed the Jefferson Nickel (but probably didn't have a standup act).

Seashells sometimes find their way into the Fan Flare slipstream. Others prefer the fossilized gum wad charm of polished minerals -- or actual gum wads. Flowers are a colorful, sincere token of appreciation (but only if they were not robbed from the nearby graves of the less famous).

Queen of the Gypsies, Meridian, Mississippi.
Queen of the Gypsies, Meridian, Mississippi

Gypsy Queens

Taking a headstone in a normal cemetery and overloading it with accessories may have begun with America's gypsy queens, whose royal plots are usually an easy-to-spot knot of Mardi Gras beads, candles, and liquor bottles. As with so much culture that really matters, we thank the gypsies. And the voodoo queens as well -- their graves are similarly over-accessorized.

One consideration: items left at the graves of people believed to have possessed supernatural power might be imbued with spiritual charges -- charms or curses. This may account for their superabundance of lingering offerings, because no graveyard custodian wants to hoover up the wrath of third party talismans.

John Belushi's grave.
John Belushi's grave.

Celebrities

Movie and TV stars enjoy continuing attention, long after the decay of their box office power and on-demand streaming sales. John Belushi (d. 1982) is an example: a brilliant comedian, best known from Saturday Night Lives's earliest seasons and 1978's Animal House. But Belushi the star was also a party animal, and his indulgences led to a sad, early demise. His grave is far from Hollywood, and rather than accumulating a mantle of Fan Flare, it seems to be a simple spot to finish a brew, empty your pockets of rocks, and snap a photo.

Martial arts movie icon Bruce Lee (d.1973) died in Hong Kong during a movie overdub session. Fifty years later he's still favored with a fan base, who leave items at his Seattle grave, including photos, personal notes, flowers, new age crystals, and fruit. His son Brandon Bruce Lee (d. 1993), who accidentally died on the set of "The Crow" is equally adored, and rests at his dad's side with his own share of offerings.

Bob Ross (d. 1995), everyone's favorite TV painter, is buried not only beneath the earth, but beneath happy landscape paintings left by fans he helped to teach over the tube. The grave of Andy Warhol (d. 1987) is regularly treated to a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup. TV evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, (d. 2007), remembered for her clownish make-up and tear-filled faith fugues, has grave offerings of lipstick, gloss, and mascara.

These are all outside plots, surrounded by manicured greenscapes and nature. Wall units in a shared interior crypt are efficient from a U-Store-It POV, but provide few opportunities or perches for mementoes.

Grave of Harvey Pekar.Grave of Harvey Pekar.

Still, fans figure it out. Marilyn Monroe's (d. 1962) interment space is often be-smooched with sultry shades of red lipstick prints. Perhaps Norma Jean enjoys the affection, but it's hard not to notice that the late Hugh Hefner (d. 2017) leers from his neighboring drawer spot, and Mr. Bury-Me-Face-Down (d. 1986) is right above her.

Authors

Ernest Hemingway (d.1961), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (d. 1940, 1948), William Faulkner (d. 1962): you'd think that their graves would be tricked out with pencils - or maybe a typewriter. Instead, their most noteworthy grave offerings are empty bottles of booze. Harper Lee departed in 2016; her flare has been a gentle flow of pennies, flowers and paperback copies of "To Kill a Mockingbird." The grave of Harvey Pekar (d. 2010), underground comix writer, sports a colorful bumper crop of pens.

H.P. Lovecraft (d. 1937), in so many ways, is an exception: his grave is sprinkled with what appear to be cryptic totems, perhaps from a terrifying parallel universe -- although it might just be crap that his visitors found floating loose in their cars.

Buddy Holley's grave.
Guitar picks at Buddy Holly's grave (his real family name spelled "Holley").

Rockers

For those who died during successful recording and performing careers, the dead rocker's grave often glows with an imagined aura of possibilities lost. Rock 'n' roll graves tend to be repositories of guitar picks (Buddy Holly, d. 1959; Jimi Hendrix, d. 1970) or drumsticks (Vinnie Paul the Brickwall, d. 2016), depending on the deceased. Four different members of the Allman Brothers Band are buried together, a grave plot so tempting to fans that it had to be fenced in. But the faithful leave stuff anyway.

Babe Ruth's grave.
Baseball offerings at Babe Ruth's grave.

Sports Legends

Most team sports - basketball, football, volleyball, soccer -- involve balls too large for grave decoration. Babe Ruth (d. 1948) seem to have the go-to grave for baseball donations. There are bats, Yankee jerseys, and a veritable grave blanket of baseballs. Then there are the fans who think afterlife Babe Ruth needs a six pack of Buds, hot dogs, and some American flags and flowers to remind us it's a grave and not a sports bar.

Outlaws

Disturbers of the peace even after death, outlaws are an exception to the 100-year limit, and have fan ornamentation if their legend -- and Hollywood bankability -- overshadows their crimes. Bonnie and Clyde will probably enjoy grave offerings long after they pass the century-dead mark in 2034. The tombstone of Billy the Kid (d. 1881), despite being inside a cage, is often delicately decorated with everything from cigarettes to shotgun shells, as is the marker for his death spot, which conveniently is only a few yards away.

Alien grave offerings.
Odd offering mix at the Space Alien grave.

Space Aliens

America's only recognized grave of an alien from outer space (d. 1897) is at times decorated with notes left by children, perhaps asking to be taken far away from their weird, graveyard tourist parents. One recent pilgrim left behind a DVD of the movie "Alien," another a bug-eyed E.T., yet another, a purple skull bursting with spores. Other offerings seem limited to terrestrial concerns -- spare change, bullets, depleted hand sanitizer bottles, and exhausted gift cards and coupons (that Martian Margarita sounds refreshing while on the inhospitable surface of central Texas).

The grave with the creepiest offerings might be that of prolific actor Nicholas Cage, who isn't even dead yet. His New Orleans pyramid tomb is embellished with a line of lipstick prints, apparently left by adoring, and possibly vampiric, fans. And for convenience, it's hard to beat the Grave in the Middle of the Road. Fans simply roll down their car windows and hurl change onto it as they drive past, paying the Stygian ferryman like they're at a 20th century toll booth.

Nicolas Cage pyramid tomb.
Horizontal inset of the Nicolas Cage pyramid tomb is filled with lipstick prints from fans.

Also see: Tips For Better Graveyard Enjoyment

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