The afterlife of Marilyn Monroe

Tuesday August 25, 2009 @ 02:25 PM (UTC)

I’ve been raised to see Marilyn Monroe as a tragic figure. Most of us realize that the full weight of society’s attention can be burdensome: how much more crushing when that attention is rife with expectation and need. No doubt this view of Monroe was imparted to me by my parents, who told me the studios assigned her a dress size for every role and expected her to lose or gain weight accordingly. It was strengthened by reading like Sharon Old’s “Death of Marilyn Monroe”, a poem I recall studying in high school.

Certainly her career brought her money and fame, but perhaps those who celebrate her as “an icon” don’t consider that icons are two-dimensional, and actresses are not. A world that no longer believed in Olympus still needed an Aphrodite, and Marilyn Monroe was elected, her mortal personhood gracefully elided.

So far, so obvious. But what troubles me is that forty years after she died, people still revere the Venus and give the person no consideration. I’m referring to the auction of a funeral vault above Monroe’s. There’s obviously magical thinking involved in the idea that having your remains interred next to the remains of someone famous confers anything at all, but the thinking isn’t just magical. It’s sexual. “The space was auctioned by the widow of the man buried – face down – above Monroe,” the BBC reports, and goes on to note, “The space next to Monroe’s vault was sold in 1992 to the publisher of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner, for $75,000.”

To me, Hefner’s burial plans seem the capstone on a project of bad taste. Richard Poncher’s being buried face down above Marilyn Monroe seems lewd in the extreme, and makes it inescapably clear that the motive is a sort of sexual status, harking back to ancient funereal practices where women were buried with men for their use in the afterlife. Marilyn Monroe, even 47 years dead, is considered the ultimate desirable woman. In death, she’s still reduced to her sex appeal, to her status as the divine temptress, and in death, unable to object, she is sold.

Now, I may be fairly accused of a different sort of magical thinking in objecting to this, and indeed of projecting my own understanding of tragedy and fame onto Marilyn Monroe just as others project the Venus archetype onto her. But ultimately, whatever you believe about the afterlife, how we treat the dead reflects upon us, the living. Do we want to be the sort of civilization that treats a supposedly loved and admired figure as the butt of an eternal dirty joke?


My general opinions on these matters is that the widow made a good financial decision to sell that stupid crypt for an obscene amount of money to someone who thought that it would be cool to be interred above Marilyn Monroe.

As you state this is nothing new, and has been going on for millennia. In the extreme, this is nothing more than the fetishist attitudes that many people hold toward Relics. In fifty years, when the crypt again goes up for sale, someone else will be able to sleep with Marilyn for a while.

Her story is a sad one. But she chose the path she would take, and even if it got away from her, she is our Helen, our Nefertiti, our Marie Antoinette, and she will be remembered, not as Norma Jean, but as Marilyn Monroe for as long as we, as a species have memories of such things.

I’m astonished the widow went through with it in the first place. Very little dignity for anyone involved, really.

I’m an idealist and an optimist: someday I hope we can be wise enough to keep our myths without treating our living and dead poorly for their sakes.

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