The corpses of James Brown, Anna Nicole Smith and Saddam Hussein were voyeuristic spectacles for a public greedy for a last look at celebrity lives, according to an academic speaking at the Death, dying & disposal conference organised by the University of Bath today.

Despite a lasting taboo over the ‘everyday’ dead of war and disaster, celebrity corpses have come to feed contemporary popular culture’s obsession with the cadaver of forensic investigation.

In 2006, this included:

  • The dead body of Anna Nicole Smith, Playboy model and reality TV star, which required 24 hour protection from the media in a Florida coroner’s freezer,and whose lurid sexualization constitutes “corpse porn.’”
  • The open casket of James Brown, godfather of soul, which ‘performed’ in a funeral stage show.
  • The execution of Saddam Hussein which was broadcast via YouTube within hours of his death.
  • Continued interest in the death of Princess Diana and photographs of her dead body.
  • A television documentary which claimed to feature the bones of Jesus, one of the first ‘celebrity’ corpses.

“Forensic investigation came to the fore in each of these prominent cases,” said Professor Jacque Lynn Foltyn from the National University, California (USA).

“Forensic science was used as an entertainment commodity as well as for legitimate reasons of establishing personal identity, paternity or maternity.

“It also fed popular culture’s obsession with dissection, decay and DNA. These seemingly separate media events created a series of overlapping, sometimes preposterous, narratives about the disfigured, dissected and displayed remains of the famous, legendary and possibly divine.

“The celebrity corpse is a voyeuristic spectacle in the infotainment era. But whilst the public are greedy for a last look at celebrity corpses, there remains a taboo over the everyday human dead of war and disaster.

”Efforts to prevent the coffins of troops returning from Iraq being seen on television mean that we are more likely to see celebrity corpses than the caskets of dead soldiers.”