Columns

Big bucks for ashes, coffin not so much 2016.10.26

By RICH FOLEY

It’s probably not fair to criticize anyone else’s idea of a collectible souvenir, but an item sold last month might be enough to change that policy. I wasn’t a fan of the late author Truman Capote, but someone else liked him enough to actually buy his ashes at auction.

Of all the material things one might collect to remember a person you admired, purchasing their cremated remains would never have occurred to me. But at some point after Capote’s passing in 1984, his remains came into the possession of Joanne Carson, ex-wife of the late “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson.

The auction house that handled the recent sale of the remains said that Joanne Carson “was given great comfort” by having Capote’s ashes. I don’t know if she bought them or if the ashes were a gift from Capote’s estate. The two were close friends and Capote had helped Joanne work on a memoir, never finished, before his death.

I’m now curious if Joanne ever obtained Johnny Carson’s remains after his passing, but apparently not as that certainly would have been news. After Joanne’s own death, Capote’s ashes were consigned to auction. The recent sale price was stunning, at least to me.

The auction house set a pre-auction estimate of $4,000 for the ashes, but that turned out to be far too low. Someone actually paid $45,000 to become their new owner.

 That pales in comparison to the one million dollars the late Michael Jackson offered in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain the remains of the Elephant Man, but that could be considered a historic artifact. Truman Capote is a relatively contemporary celebrity. Buying his ashes is like buying Lee Harvey Oswald’s coffin. Oh, wait—that was almost done, too.

After Oswald’s murder days after his assassination of President Kennedy—-I’ll get to the conspiracy theories in a minute—-Oswald’s brother Robert paid a Fort Worth funeral home $710 for a burial service, including a simple pine coffin.

There was such a small turnout at the service that journalists covering the burial were asked to be pall bearers. A reporter for the Associated Press said no, emphatically, but changed his mind after a rival from United Press International agreed to help. The AP man, sensing he was about to be scooped by his main competitor, also joined the burial party.

Jump ahead 18 years to 1981 when the body was exhumed after conspiracy theorists insisted that, instead of Oswald, a Soviet impostor was actually buried in his place. Tests proved it really was Oswald in the now badly deteriorated coffin.

 His remains were reburied in a new coffin and that was that. At least it was until 2010, when the funeral home, which had quietly held onto the original coffin for nearly 30 years, consigned it to a Los Angeles auction house. The rotting coffin sold for a whopping $87,468. The name of the winning bidder was never revealed.

Robert Oswald sued to block the transfer of the coffin, which he assumed had been destroyed in 1981 after the exhumation. The funeral home defended the sale, contending that Robert Oswald had no legal claim to the coffin as his purchase of it in 1963 should be considered a “gift” to his dead brother and thus Robert never actually owned it himself.

I’m no lawyer, but following that reasoning should make the coffin the property of Oswald’s estate, not the funeral home which should have lost its claim when Robert Oswald paid them for it. And why did they hold onto it for so long before consigning it for auction? Were they hoping Robert Oswald eventually wouldn’t be around to contest the sale? Someone must have tired of waiting.

The case took five years working its way through the court system before being settled in Robert Oswald’s favor last year. Not only was the coffin returned to Mr. Oswald, who said he would destroy it, the court also ordered the funeral home to pay him $87,468 in damages, the amount the coffin had sold for at auction. In addition, the funeral home also had to pay the auction house nearly $11,000 in storage fees to cover the five years it held the coffin plus various other expenses.

You could say these cases set the parameters of what is and isn’t marketable as celebrity souvenirs. Ashes are apparently fair game, but don’t try to sell anyone’s coffin. Actually, I think I’ll pass on both.