Perhaps the most surprising thing about plans to auction off the Memphis crypt that briefly held Elvis Presley, pre-Graceland internment, is that it's taken nearly 35 years to put the tomb up for sale.
After all this time – and particularly after the attempts in 2009 to peddle the crypt above Marilyn Monroe's final resting place – we should be inured to ghoulish efforts to make a killing off dead celebrities. But there's still something about the latest Presley circus-in-the-making that's creepy enough to leave fans all shook up.
Word of the June sale (starting bid: $100,000) comes amid the growing march of the holograms, with projections of Tupac Shakur, Freddie Mercury and Lisa "Left-Eye" Lopes following in the ghostly footprints of Presley, whose image was conjured for an ill-considered "duet" with Celine Dion on a 2007 "American Idol" special. The crypt announcement also comes as we gird for a potential plunge into more morbidity and tastelessness with the 35th anniversary of Presley's death and 50th anniversary of Monroe's demise both arriving August.
Meanwhile, we’re approaching the third anniversary of the passing of Michael Jackson, whose deathbed briefly hit the auction block last year – and whose next appearance will be on the sides of Pepsi cans.
Monroe, Presley and Jackson – perhaps our three best-known, star-crossed, died-to-soon icons – represent a kind of unholy triumvirate of the unsettling melding of dead-celebrity fetishism and commerce.
The line between celebrating entertainment greats and exploiting their images in death is becoming as hazy as an astral projection, amid advances in technology and a decline in standards. Sure, the hundreds of thousands of fans who visit Graceland and Presley’s resting place signal a tribute of sorts to the impact of his music nearly 60 years after “That’s All Right” got its first radio airing. The NBC drama “Smash,” which centers on a burgeoning Broadway musical about Monroe’s life, is, in part, a testament to her enduring hold on the popular imagination. The upcoming 25th anniversary re-release of Jackson’s “Bad,” with previously unheard tracks, demos and remixes, marks a major pop music event.
Crypt and deathbed sales, holograms and soda cans are another matter.
The only line that matters, it seems, is the bottom line. Forbes last year put Jackson ($170 million), Presley ($55 million) and Monroe ($27 million) in the top three spots on its latest list of highest-earning dead stars.
That suggests they’re worth more dead than alive, which, while perhaps true, is a shame. We’re to the point where Presley, Jackson, Monroe and other performers who died young won’t be remembered most for their talent or even the sad circumstances of their early deaths, but for what they've become in an increasingly strange celebrity afterlife that won't let them rest in peace.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.