Nine Famous People and What They’re Buried With

Icons of their time, these celebrities didn’t stray far from their public personae when it came to their final resting places

Houdini Grave
Houdini's grave at the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. Wikipedia

When the comedian David Brenner died earlier this year, obituaries reported that he’d asked to be buried with $100 in small bills, “just in case tipping is recommended where I’m going.”

Brenner is not the first celebrity to challenge the conventional wisdom of “you can’t take it with you.” Here are nine more:

Leonard Bernstein (1918 to 1990). The famous conductor and composer, whose works included the musicals On the Town and West Side Story, was buried with a piece of amber, a lucky penny, a baton, a copy of Alice in Wonderland and a pocket score of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, according to the 2014 biography Leonard Bernstein: An American Musician. While each item had its significance in Bernstein’s life, the Mahler symphony was probably closest to his heart. At least one account claims it was placed directly over his heart in his casket, though others say it was simply put in alongside him.

Bernstein was known to have both idolized and identified with the late Austrian conductor and composer. Introducing a 1960 Young People’s Concert devoted to Mahler’s work, Bernstein observed, “It’s a problem to be both a conductor and a composer; there never seems to be enough time and energy to be both things. I ought to know because I have the same problem myself… It’s like being two different men locked up in the same body; one man is a conductor and the other a composer, and they’re both one fellow called Mahler (or Bernstein).”

Humphrey Bogart (1899 to 1957). Before the actor’s cremated remains were laid to rest, they were supposedly joined in their urn by a small gold whistle bearing the inscription “If you want anything, just whistle,” which he had given his widow, Lauren Bacall, years earlier.

The line was a reference to their 1944 film, To Have and Have Not, loosely based on an Ernest Hemingway novel, and the first movie to pair the then 43-year-old Bogart and his 19-year-old future wife. Though the quote in the inscription is often cited as a line of dialog from the movie, what Bacall’s character actually says would have required a much bigger whistle: “You know you don't have to act with me. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”

For whatever reason, Bogart seems to have inspired memorable misquotations. Perhaps his most famous line of movie dialogue, “Play it again, Sam,” from 1942’s Casablanca never appears in the actual movie either.

George Burns (1896 to 1996). For the vaudeville, radio, television and movie comedian, cigars were a constant prop, and he went to his grave with three in his pocket.

What brand those might been doesn’t seem to have been recorded, though Burns was known to favor El Producto Queens. He explained the very practical reason behind his preference in a 1994 interview with the magazine Cigar Aficionado. The interviewer was Arthur Marx, son of another well-known cigar-chomping comedian, Groucho Marx.

George Burns
George Burns. Wikipedia

Burns told him, “the reason I smoke a domestic cigar is because the more expensive Havana cigars are tightly packed. They go out on the stage while I'm doing my act. The El Producto stays lit. Now if you're onstage and your cigar keeps going out, you have to keep lighting it. If you have to stop your act to keep lighting your cigar, the audience goes out.”

Roald Dahl (1916-1990). The author of the children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, celebrated chocolate in both his art and his life. So it isn’t surprising that he was reportedly buried with some (as well as a bottle of Burgundy, snooker cues, pencils, and a power saw).

In his 1984 memoir, Boy, Dahl wrote that one of his happiest childhood memories involved the newly invented candy bars that the British chocolate maker Cadbury sent to his boarding school from time to time, asking Dahl and his classmates to rate them. He fantasized about working in a chocolate laboratory when he grew up and inventing a chocolate that would wow even “the great Mr. Cadbury himself.” That fantasy, he said, became the inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

If Dahl didn’t grow up to become a chocolate inventor, he did remain a chocolate lover. He is said to have kept a red plastic box stuffed with chocolates, which he’d offer to guests after every meal, or simply eat by himself if he was dining alone. The box is preserved at the Roald Dahl Museum archives in the village of Great Missenden, north of London.

Harry Houdini (1874 to 1926). The famous magician and escape artist was buried with his head resting on a packet of letters from his beloved mother, Cecilia Weiss. As Houdini’s friend Howard Thurston (perhaps the second most famous magician of the day) observed at the time, “His love for his mother was his deepest devotion.”

Cecilia’s death, in 1913, had been a shock that her son never quite recovered from. Hoping to communicate with her in the next life, Houdini became fascinated with the then-popular fad of spiritualism. Open-minded at first, he was soon disenchanted and spent much of the remainder of his life exposing the tricks of psychics and mediums.

Houdini’s coffin was a specially designed solid bronze model with a hermetically sealed inner liner that he had used underwater in his act. As The New York Times reported, Houdini had it “made to prove his contention that any one could live without air for an hour if they did not let fear overcome them. It was his expressed wish that he be buried in this coffin.”

Houdini got his wish. He was buried in Queens, New York, in a plot he shares with his mother and other relatives.

John F. Kennedy (1917 to 1963). Among his leisure pursuits, the 35th President was a collector of scrimshaw, pieces of whale bone or ivory that were engraved with pictures and designs, most famously by New England whalers. Highlights of his collection were on prominent display in the Oval Office during his presidency.

            A particular favorite was a 9 1/2-inch-long whale tooth, engraved with the presidential seal by the scrimshaw artist Milton Delano. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who had commissioned the piece, gave it to her husband for Christmas in 1962, the last Christmas he’d live to see. It was buried with him in Arlington National Cemetery after his assassination the following November.

            Not long before his death, Kennedy himself gave another piece away, to the actress Greta Garbo, who had admired the collection during a White House visit. Much of the remaining collection now resides at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

            Other items buried with the President include letters from his wife and two children and a pair of gold cufflinks. His brother Robert, who would be assassinated less than five years later, is said to have added a PT-109 tie clip and a silver rosary.

Bela Lugosi (1882 to 1956). As the most famous interpreter of Dracula on both the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen, the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi spent much of his career in coffins. In 1956, when the nearly forgotten Lugosi died from a heart attack, he was laid to rest in his final one.

At the suggestion of family and friends, according to Arthur Lennig’s 2013 biography, The Immortal Count, Lugosi was buried in full Dracula regalia, including his trademark black cape. The actor himself might have had mixed feelings about that. Even before his immortal turn as the Transylvanian vampire in the 1931 Tod Browning film, Lugosi had recognized the dangers of being typecast as a monster, no matter how suave and well dressed.

“He hopes, when the talkie Dracula is completed, to escape the shackles of the role,” an Associated Press writer reported in 1930. “He will never again play Dracula on the stage, he says. If the wide distribution of the film did not make such a venture unprofitable, he would refuse because of the nervous strain the gruesome character puts upon him.”

In fact, Lugosi would go on to portray Dracula or Dracula-like characters on stage and in several more films, including the 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the posthumously released Plan 9 from Outer Space, widely considered one of the worst movies of all time.

Frank Sinatra (1915 to 1998). The “My Way” singer was buried his way, with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s whiskey, a pack of Camel cigarettes, a Zippo lighter, and a dollar’s worth of dimes, according to contemporary news accounts. The dimes were reportedly in case he needed to use a pay phone.

Jack Daniel’s had been Sinatra’s frequent companion, both on stage and off, ever since he was introduced to it by the comedian Jackie Gleason. In Gay Talese’s celebrated 1966 Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Talese quotes the singer as saying, “I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel.” He was also known to refer to it as the “nectar of the gods.”

Sinatra’s fondness for Jack Daniel’s, and the fact that he was buried with a bottle, have since been featured in the whiskey maker’s advertising, adding posthumous celebrity endorser to Sinatra’s many other credentials. Jack Daniel’s has also created a premium whiskey in his honor, Sinatra Select.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987). By some accounts the pop artist and filmmaker was buried clutching a bottle of Estee Lauder perfume. By other, possibly more reliable reports, a bottle was tossed into his grave by a friend, after the casket had been lowered. Either way, he would have appreciated the gesture; as he wrote in The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, “I really love wearing perfume.”

He goes on to confess that, “Sometimes at parties I slip away to the bathroom just to see what colognes they’ve got. I never look at anything else—I don’t snoop—but I’m compulsive about seeing if there’s some obscure perfume I haven't tried yet, or a good old favorite I haven’t smelled in a long time. If I see something interesting, I can't stop myself from pouring it on. But then for the rest of the evening, I’m paranoid that the host or hostess will get a whiff of me and notice that I smell like somebody-they-know.”

Warhol’s relationship with perfume didn’t end with his death. Today his name is on no fewer than seven different men’s and women’s fragrances.

Andy Warhol Grave
Andy Warhol's grave, located at St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cemetery in a suburb of Pittsburgh. Wikipedia

And 10 more, in brief:

William S. Burroughs (1914 to 1997). The Beat Generation novelist was reportedly buried with, among other things a loaded .38 caliber revolver, a sword cane, a ballpoint pen, a fedora and a joint.

Tony Curtis (1925 to 2010). The movie actor shares his coffin with a long list of items, including his Stetson hat, a pair of driving gloves, his grandson’s baby shoes, and the ashes of his dog.

Miles Davis (1926 to 1991). The jazz trumpeter is said to be buried with one or more of his horns.

Wild Bill Hickok (1837 to 1876). Legendary Wild West gunslinger and lawman Hickok was buried with his rifle.

Ernie Kovacs (1919 to 1962). Comedian and television pioneer Kovacs, who by some accounts died in a car crash while trying to light a cigar, was supposedly buried with one put in his hand by his widow, Edie Adams, and another tucked into his jacket by his friend Jack Lemmon.  

Bob Marley (1945 to 1981). The reggae great is reportedly buried with his red Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible, and some marijuana.

Stan Musial (1920 to 2013). St. Louis Cardinals slugger and Baseball Hall of Famer Stan “The Man” Musial was nearly as fond of the harmonica as he was of the bat. He was buried with one of the former in his jacket pocket  

Harland Sanders (1890 to 1980). The Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame was buried in his trademark double-breasted white suit.

Tiny Tim (1932-1996). Best known for his 1968 rendition of “Tip-Toe Thru' The Tulips With Me,” the ukulele-strumming falsetto singer was reportedly buried with—what else?—a ukulele and one or more tulips.

Ronnie Van Zant (1948 to 1977). The Lynyrd Skynyrd front man, killed in a 1977 plane crash, is said to be buried with a black hat and his fishing pole.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.