The post-mortem fate of Marilyn Monroe: a case study of bodily integrity in death

When we think of the famous starlet, Marilyn Monroe, we think of the vivacious blond bombshell so full of life on our movie screens. Marilyn, born Norma Jean Mortensen, is by far one of the most well-known faces from the golden era of Hollywood. Like her life, her death was also full of controversy and is subject to conspiracy. I have read numerous articles and books, watched documentaries and listened to podcasts surrounding the circumstances of her death- with accusations of murder against the Kennedys, the Mafia and her medical team in numerous sources. Instead of discussing the topic of her death, I have decided to discuss the post-mortem treatment of Marilyn’s body. In life, her bodily autonomy was a subject of discussion for many a Hollywood executive. Whilst Marilyn was proud of her body and her overt sex appeal, one cannot deny how she was manipulated and used by many around her. She was painted as the ‘dumb blond’, despite the fact she was extremely intelligent and well read, she had an interest particularly in art history and classical literature. Unfortunately, issues regarding her bodily integrity also became apparent upon her death.

Marilyn died in her home on the 5th of August 1962. She was naked in her bed, with her telephone in her hand having died from an apparent overdose. Once the news had broke of her death, paparazzi surrounded her house and images taken of her dead body in her bedroom by the police were later publicly released. The bottles of prescription drugs on her bedside cabinet were pointed out by someone posing in the infamous photograph beside her corpse. Videos were taken of the gurney rolling out of the house with her lifeless body laying upon it. Just mere hours after her death, Marilyn was already being exploited by the media- they swarmed the funeral home she was taken to (there have been reports her corpse was stuffed in a broom closet away from prying eyes).

Newspaper headline with Marilyn’s Death

An unsavoury article released by the Daily Mail in 2015 discusses the claims made by the famous funeral service, Abbott and Hast, that Marilyn looked awful upon her death. Abbott and Hast were famous during the 1960’s as the funeral service used by the rich and famous, having also handled the bodies of Natalie Wood and Clark Gable. According to Allan Abbott, he states when he saw the body of Marilyn that she ‘looked like a very average, aging woman who had not been taking very good care of herself’. He even goes on to comment on the condition of her manicure, her hair colour and the fact that she had not shaved her legs in ‘at least a week’. Her appearance was scrutinised even in death, even then she was held to the highest of beauty standards. She was still a female subject that could be criticised by the male gaze, worsened by the fact Abbott was trusted to care for her in a confidential, respectful manner but decided to make his comments public. Abbott further discusses her case in his book ‘Pardon My Hearse’, chronicling his time as a mortician in Hollywood. Marilyn’s makeup artist Whitey Snyder came to the funeral home to do her makeup and to fit a wig that was used on one of her movies. Synder discussed Marilyn’s breasts with Abbott in the funeral home, stating that they had begun to sag at her age and that she wore ‘falsies’ to keep her physique. One of the workers exclaimed ‘what happened to her boobs?’ when they first saw her after the autopsy, as the incision in her chest area and rib cutting had caused them to change shape. Once the employee had decided to stuff her bra with cotton wool in the coffin, they stood back and stated, ‘Now that looks like Marilyn Monroe!’ Sexualisation and scrutinization of her physique deemed acceptable even as she was laid out to be viewed by loved ones. As someone who has done some training in a funeral home setting, I cannot help but feel disgusted by this blatant lack of disrespect and breach of confidentiality. Abbott even auctioned off the ‘falsie’ breasts brought to the funeral home by her executrix, and some of her hair that was removed by the embalmer. It is unsettling but not unsurprising that these items were deemed acceptable to auction.

Medical attendants removing the body of Marilyn Monroe

Before Marilyn was transported to the funeral home at Westwood Village Mortuary for preparation, her body was brought in for autopsy. Her autopsy was carried out by Dr Thomas Noguchi, the deputy chief examiner. Her death was ruled a probable suicide from barbiturates, most notably Nembutal and Chloral Hydrate. At the morgue, a Life magazine photographer bribed a mortuary attendant with a bottle of whiskey to take a photo of her un-embalmed, freshly autopsied body. Another infamous photo of her corpse has been the subject of much scrutiny, with even more derogatory commentary made concerning her appearance in the years following her death (there have even been sickening claims of necrophilia). There have also been allegations that the Hollywood Museum of death stored and displayed some of the post autopsy images of her. Marilyn or her loved ones had no control over the photos being taken of her body, and she had no control over their subsequent distribution and display in the years following.

Pills on Marilyn bedside table

Marilyn’s funeral took place on the 8th of August 1962 at the Westwood Village Mortuary Chapel, she was buried afterwards in the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. It was organised by her ex-husband Joe DiMaggio; she was dressed in a green Pucci dress with a green chiffon scarf with the casket opened for the ceremony.

Having recently listened to the excellent podcast episode by Morbid Podcast on the death of Marilyn Monroe, there are even more disturbing facts surrounding her resting place. A man named Richard Poncher requested to be buried in the space above Marilyn, he also requested to be buried face down so he could ‘lie on top of her’- this wish was granted upon his death. Hugh Hefner, the infamous mogul of Playboy magazine, was buried next to Marilyn. This was the very same man who used her nude photos without her permission in the first playmate edition of the magazine in the 1950s. If you visit her grave today, bright pink and red lipstick marks adorn the monument from her fans- particularly unsettling as Marilyn never wanted to be remembered as the ‘dumb blonde’ lipstick wearing sex pot she was portrayed as onscreen.

Marilyn’s body serves as a reminder of the importance of bodily integrity in death as well as life. Her case is a poignant study of how death does not make one exempt from bodily scrutiny and exploitation. The legal issues regarding the rights of the dead and bodily integrity are complicated and controversial. We are concerned with the autonomy of the dead as they are strongly linked to the body of the living who expresses their wishes whilst alive. The question arises as to whether the dead provoke feelings of concern regarding the treatment of the corpse. Using Marilyn as an example, it does not seem that controversial to say the dead deserve the same respect as the living.  


Taraborrelli, J.R., 2009. The secret life of Marilyn Monroe. Grand Central Publishing.

Young, H., 2012. The right to posthumous bodily integrity and implications of whose right it is. Marq. Elder’s Adviser14, p.197.

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