How did Karen Carpenter Die? The Tragic Details of Her Eating Disorder

how did karen carpenter die
How did Karen Carpenter die? Publicity photo of Karen Carpenter from Billboard, November 1973 Photo by Billboard Advertising on Wikimedia Commons.

Touted by Elton John as ‘one of the greatest singers of our lifetime,’ Karen Carpenter’s life was as impactful as it was short-lived. She was one of the most famed singers in the 70s as part of The Carpenters duo with her brother Richard. 

People would flock to their shows to hear remarkable 3-octave contralto voice. Contralto is a classic deep voice, and it’s also the rarest female voice type. 

Even though she was wildly successful, Carpenter dealt with many demons that led to her untimely passing. So how did Karen Carpenter die? Keep reading to discover the tragic events that ended her inspiring career.

How Did Karen Carpenter Die?

Karen Carpenter’s tragic death was due to heart failure from anorexia nervosa. 

Karen had been battling anorexia nervosa and bulimia for over seven years, and according to the coroner, she had been using ipecac syrup (which contains emetine) to induce vomiting. The constant use of emetine damaged her heart muscles and caused a heart attack.

At the time of her sudden death, Karen was under treatment, and friends believed she was recovering.

karen carpenter death
Publicity photo of Karen and Richard Carpenter in August 1874 photo by Billboard Magazine on Wikimedia Commons.

What Was the Backstory of Karen Carpenter’s Death?

Karen Carpenter dealt with anorexia and bulemia her entire life.

She began extreme dieting in high school, weighing as little as 120lbs. This was already low weight for her 5’4″ frame. 

She stayed at that weight until 1973 when the Carpenters broke big. That year she saw a photo of herself in which she felt she looked heavier, so she started dieting again, dropping her weight to just under 100lbs. But it wasn’t enough.

The problem with anorexia and bulimia is the person often develops ‘body dysmorphia.’ You don’t see yourself objectively and your flaws are magnified in your mind.

During these years, Karen’s eating habits changed. She would try to reduce the food in her plate by offering it to others. By the end of 1975, she weighed 90lbs, which is dangerously below a healthy BMI for her height. 

By this time, everyone could tell something was seriously wrong. Fans would gasp at her gaunt appearance, but it wasn’t until six years later that she told her brother she needed help.  

Related: How Did Jim Morrison Die? The Death of a True Rock Superstar

How Bad Was Karen Carpenter’s Anorexia?

By 1981, Karen’s condition had become so severe she was using thyroid medication to increase her metabolism, which she bought with a fake prescription. 

She was also taking 80-90 laxative pills every night to speed up her digestion and prevent calories from being stored in her body. 

Her doctor confiscated her pills and began her treatment, but unfortunately, her condition didn’t improve. She continued to lose weight. 

Karen Carpenter’s Musical Achievements

During their career in the 70s and 80s, Karen and her brother Richard recorded over 17 songs that were Top 20 hits. They had a whopping ten gold singles, nine gold albums, one platinum album, and won three Grammys.

At one point, they sold more albums than the Beatles, and Carpenter was even named by Rolling Stone as one of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.

Who Did Karen Carpenter Marry?

Karen Carpenter married Thomas James Murris, a real-estate developer, in August 1980. He was nine years her senior and divorced, with an 18-year-old son. 

The marriage didn’t last long, and they broke up after 14 months. Carpenter had desperately wanted children, but Murris had had a secret vasectomy before the wedding, and he refused to reverse it. 

A close friend of Karen’s, Kamon, said the marriage was “absolutely the worst thing that could have ever happened to her.”

Murris financially depended on Karen and borrowed up to $50,000 from his wife. Sources said that she only had stocks and bonds left at one point.

Did Karen Carpenter Have Children?

No, Karen never had children. When she married Burris, she desperately wanted children, but Burris refused.


Karen Carpenter’s Last Days

After a year of treatment in New York, Karen returned to California determined to finalize her divorce and start a new life. 

On the 11th of January 1983, she went to her last gathering, a meetup of Grammy Award Winners. She seemed frail but energetic and was making jokes about her figure. 

A month later, she met her brother Richard for the last time to discuss plans for their upcoming tour. Three days later, when she was scheduled to file her divorce papers, she collapsed in her bedroom at her parents’ home in Downey.

Paramedics found her heart beating once every 10 seconds (6 bpm), and she was pronounced dead at Downey Community Hospital.

Related: How Did Prince Die? The Story Behind is Drug-Related Death

What Was the Cause of Karen Carpenter’s Early Death?

The autopsy revealed that she had been killed by ‘emetine poisoning.’ Emetine is a drug used to induce vomiting. 

The coroner said Karen used ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter drug to induce vomiting. However, her doctor refuted this, saying he hadn’t seen evidence that she had been vomiting. 

Ipecac was banned as an OTC medication in 2003, and you can only buy it with a prescription now.

karen carpenter cause of death
President Richard Nixon with Karen and Richard Carpenter, 8/1/1972. Photo by Nixon Administration on Wikimedia Commons.

Where Was Karen Carpenter’s Funeral Held?

Karen’s spectacular funeral was held on 8th February 1983 in the United Methodist Church of Downey. Above 1000 people attended, including her husband, who placed his wedding ring in her casket.

How Much Weight Did Karen Carpenter Lose?

Karen Carpenter dropped her weight from 100lb to 90lb during the last 10 years of her life. To lose weight, she used a dangerous combination of thyroid medication and laxatives to speed up her digestion and prevent calories from being stored.

What Was Karen Carpenter’s Weight When She Died?

Karen Carpenter weighed only 108lb when she died. 

How Old Was Karen Carpenter When She Died?

Karen Carpenter was only 32 years old when she died on 4th February 1983.

Did Karen Carpenter Die in a Closet?

Yes, Karen Carpenter collapsed in the walk-in closet of her bedroom at her parent’s house. 

Her mother found her collapsed on the floor on the morning of 4th February 1983.

Related: How Exactly Did Michael Jackson Die? The Death of a Superstar

What Was the Impact of Karen Carpenter’s Death?

Although she left us, her powerful and soulful singing voice was not forgotten. 

The Carpenters received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the year she died. 

Twenty-seven years after her death, in 2010, Rolling Stone named her the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, calling her voice “impossibly lush and almost shockingly intimate.” 

Her death also bought media attention to eating disorders that weren’t well-known before. The Karen A. Carpenter Memorial Foundation was launched in her name to raise money for research on eating disorders.

Written by Bo Weber

Supporting artists since 2014


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