How Did Bob Marley Die? The Details Behind His Final Years and 1981 Death

The reggae icon was 36 years old when he died of cancer in 1981

<p>Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns</p> Bob Marley in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1976

Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns

Bob Marley in Amsterdam, Netherlands in 1976

Bob Marley may have died more than 40 years ago, but his legacy of love lives on.

The iconic Jamaican singer was at the peak of his career when he was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer in 1977. Despite the news about his health, he continued performing, touring the world and releasing new music. It wasn’t until several years later that his cancer diagnosis began to affect his daily life.

Coming off of a two-night run at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Marley was playing soccer with friends in Central Park when he had a seizure. After being taken to a local hospital, doctors discovered his cancer had spread throughout his entire body, and he was given just months to live. Despite the grim prognosis, Marley stayed positive.

“Him say, ‘Listen, we’re gonna fight it, all right? Regardless of what the doctors might say or what they might do, we're gonna fight it. ’Cause a Rasta never give up,’ ” his friend and personal physician Dr. Carlton “Pee Wee” Fraser recalled in the 2012 documentary Marley.

After seeking alternative treatments around the world, Marley died on May 11, 1981, in Miami. On his 79th birthday in 2024, his son, Ziggy Marley — who was 12 years old at the time of Marley's death — penned a sweet letter to the reggae singer for PEOPLE.

Related: Bob Marley's Son Ziggy Pens Sweet Letter to the Reggae Star on What Would Have Been His 79th Birthday (Exclusive)

"I miss everything [about you], but mainly your presence," Ziggy wrote. "I listen to you. Your songs are always playing — when I go to my mother [Rita’s] house, music is on. Bob is on. Music is always around."

He continued, "My smile is honoring you. I laugh, and it looks like your laugh. Pieces of you are a part of me. You would’ve loved being a grandpa [Ziggy is a dad to seven children]. I see a little bit of something of you [in them] every now and again. It’s lovely to see. It’s joyful. The grandkids get a piece of you through us. Everything we do is connected to you."

So what happened to Bob Marley? Here are all the details of his untimely death and the legacy he left behind.

How did Bob Marley die?

<p>Chris Walter/WireImage</p> Bob Marley at Tower Records Hollywood in 1979

Chris Walter/WireImage

Bob Marley at Tower Records Hollywood in 1979

Marley died from acral lentiginous melanoma, a rare form of skin cancer, which had spread throughout his body over several years, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. He was first diagnosed in July 1977 when he sought treatment for a lesion under the big toe on his right foot. Marley first thought it was a soccer injury, but an opinion from a second doctor who biopsied the spot revealed that it was cancer.

Although the doctor recommended amputating the toe, Marley opted to remove the nail and some of the affected tissue for a skin graft. Marley continued without medical care for the next few years, all while releasing music and touring the world.

By September 1980, Marley’s cancer had begun to overtake his body. After performing two shows at Madison Square Garden, he collapsed while exercising in Central Park. He was taken to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where doctors discovered his cancer had spread to his brain, lungs and other organs. In an interview with The New Yorker, Marley’s manager Danny Sims recalled one doctor saying he had “more cancer in him than I’ve seen with a live human being.” Marley was given just a few months to live.

He played his final concert in Pittsburgh just two days later, after which his road manager, Allan Cole, decided it was in his best interest to cancel the rest of the tour. Marley underwent chemotherapy treatment, but when his health didn’t improve, Cole helped find an alternative treatment. Cole went to a cancer seminar, where he met a controversial German doctor, whose holistic methods of care were “nontoxic” and primarily diet-based.

“There was a German doctor, Dr. Josef Issels, who was there. He is the only man on record to have cured that form of cancer — melanoma. He was the top cancer specialist who did not use the conventional style of curing cancer. He was anti-system and was against the drug company,” Cole told the Jamaica Observer in 2021. (In a review of Issels' studies, the American Cancer Society determined that there was not sufficient evidence to prove the treatment was effective.)

Marley traveled to Germany to enter Issels’ clinic. He continued this treatment method for the next eight months. By May 1981, Marley’s health had deteriorated, and he elected to end his treatment.

When did Bob Marley die?

Marley died on May 11, 1981.

Where did Bob Marley die?

<p>Allan Tannenbaum/Getty</p> Jamaican Reggae musician Bob Marley

Allan Tannenbaum/Getty

Jamaican Reggae musician Bob Marley

In the months before his death, Marley received treatment in Germany. When it became clear that his cancer was terminal, he decided to head home to Jamaica to live out the remainder of his life. Marley never made it back home, though, as he fell ill on the flight. The plane landed in Miami and he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where he died a few days later.

How old was Bob Marley when he died?

Marley was 36 years old at the time of his death.

What were Bob Marley’s last words?

<p>Pete Still/Redferns</p> Bob Marley performs at Crystal Palace Bowl in London in 1980

Pete Still/Redferns

Bob Marley performs at Crystal Palace Bowl in London in 1980

Marley’s family was by his side at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in the days before his death, thanks to his wife Rita Marley, who brought his children from Jamaica.

“I brought up all the kids who was in Jamaica. Some of them not my kids, some from other mothers. So I gathered everyone and said, ‘Come. Daddy want to see you all,’ ” Rita recalled in the documentary Marley.

Related: Bob Marley's Children: All About the Reggae Legend's Sons and Daughters

His son Ziggy still remembers his father's final words of inspiration to him, telling PEOPLE in 2024, “[He said] ‘On your way up, take me up. On your way down, don’t let me down.' "

"A father-son relationship is very deep, and it’s a spiritual thing also," Ziggy continued. "We share a certain spiritual foundation — my father, myself, my brothers and my sisters. So that word means exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m doing. It just means that I don’t have to think about it, really, because I was doing it anyway.”

Ziggy also debunked the internet rumor that Marley's last words were, “Money can’t buy life.“ The musician told PEOPLE, "That’s not true."

How did the public react to Bob Marley’s death?

<p>MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty</p> A statue of Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica


A statue of Bob Marley in Kingston, Jamaica

Marley’s death made headlines worldwide and came as a surprise to many fans, who had last heard that he was going to be “all right” and had plans to be back on the road that year, according to the documentary Marley.

Marley was honored with a state funeral in Jamaica on May 20, 1981. After a private church service for his family, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their final respects at the National Arena in Kingston, the Jamaica Observer reported. His wife Rita performed “Fly Away Home,” and Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave a eulogy. Seaga spoke of Marley’s childhood in Jamaica and his journey to become a “top-ranking superstar in the entertainment field.”

“He immortalized these words in his own song, ‘Fly Away Home’: ‘One bright morning when my work is over, I will fly away home.' Now his soul will find contentment in the achievements of his life and rejoice in the greatness of Jah Rastafari,” Seaga added.

Marley was later buried in a mausoleum near his hometown of Nine Mile in Saint Ann Parish, Jamaica. He was buried with his Gibson Les Paul guitar, a Bible opened to Psalm 23 and a stalk of cannabis, according to The Guardian. His mother, Cedella Booker, was buried in an adjacent mausoleum in 2008; his brother, Anthony Booker, was interred in a tomb above Bob in 1990. Fans still visit the gravesite to pay their respects.

What legacy did Bob Marley leave?

<p>LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty</p> Rita Marley, Stephanie and Robert Marley on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001


Rita Marley, Stephanie and Robert Marley on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2001

Even after Marley’s death, he has remained a prominent fixture in the music industry and pop culture. In 1994, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2001, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. That same year, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy. In 2010, he was named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.

Marley’s sons credit their late father's lasting legacy to their efforts to “keep his music alive” as well as Marley's ability to relate to a wide audience of people.

“One of the things I have also noticed is that people continue to see Bob as a human being. This is based on who they think he was, based on what they have read, heard and seen in the various interviews and taken from the music,” Ziggy told the Jamaica Observer in 2021.

“They hold him in high regard ... but at the same time they see him as someone who they could drink a beer with, smoke some weed,” he continued. “He could have been their friend. Not a lot of people see Michael Jackson or Elvis Presley in that way, but Bob's relatability as a person draws them to him. Nobody else in the history of music draws people to them in that way.”

Most recently, Marley's life was depicted in the 2024 film Bob Marley: One Love. Marley's wife Rita and children Ziggy and Cedella served as producers while actor Kingsley Ben-Adir played the late reggae star.

“There’s moments in there where we’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s just like Daddy’... I want people to take away emotion, but the bigger idea is for people [to] come together and live together in a peace and love," Ziggy told PEOPLE of the project. "The message in the movie is unity. That’s what the movie stands for.”

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