James Brown has yet to rest in peace.
His embalmed body lies in a sealed casket at his South Carolina home while his family and attorneys argue over his estate and final resting place.
Such posthumous problems are nothing new. While burial battles like Brown’s are rare, a whole host of family dramas have haunted famous folks well into the afterlife.
The unending eclectic list includes athletes, musicians, movie stars and other notable names.
“It’s just the nature of families,” said Joelle Drucker, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig in Los Angeles. “If you don’t get along, if there’s a prior marriage with children and conflicting interests, there’s always going to be fighting. It tends to be the norm rather than the exception.”
The family of baseball great Ted Williams started fighting immediately after his death in 2002. Williams’ son, John Henry, said his dad wanted to be cryogenically frozen, but Williams’ daughter from a previous marriage, Barbara Joyce Ferrell, insisted Williams wanted to be cremated, as indicated in his will. After he died, the Hall of Famer was decapitated and his head and body were frozen separately at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale. The legal fight over Williams’ final fate continued more than two years after his death, when Ferrell dropped the case.
Cryonics also posed a problem for the family of Walt Disney. After his death in 1966, a British tabloid published a picture that supposedly showed Disney’s head on ice, said Disney biographer and longtime Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas. But the photo was a fake, Thomas said.
Disney “was cremated and he’s lying in Forest Lawn,” he said. “The family abhorred this kind of nonsense.”
Cremation isn’t problem-free either. Four years after actor Peter Lawford’s death, his ashes were removed from a crypt at a Los Angeles cemetery because his children reportedly refused to pay the funeral bills. The ashes were turned over to Lawford’s fourth wife, who scattered them in the Pacific Ocean. Then one of Lawford’s friends came forward, claiming he had already dumped most of Lawford’s ashes into the ocean off the coast of Malibu four years earlier during a drunken party just after the actor’s death.
Public figures usually establish their burial plans well ahead of time, said Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management, a national monthly magazine for the funeral industry. Burials typically take place no more than seven days after death. Some religious traditions require even more timely interment.
He noted that President Ford’s body was flown from California to Washington, D.C. to Michigan and was still buried within seven days.
But burial isn’t enough to end some family feuds.
Lawsuits continue to be filed years after Marlon Brando’s 2004 death. The actor’s former caregiver sued the executors of his estate in July claiming she was forced out of a house Brando bought for her. A former Brando business manager also sued the actor’s estate in 2005, claiming sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
Ray Charles eternal rest was also dogged by lawsuits. Fights over child support and paternity issues continued for more than a year after he died in June of 2004.
Sometimes the arguments even begin while the prominent person is still alive. The family of 88-year-old evangelist Billy Graham is already at odds over where his final resting place will be. One son wants him buried near the family home in Montreat, N.C., while another wants Graham’s grave located near the Charlotte evangelical center that bears his name.
Perhaps Graham will have the final vote.