Whitley had lost both his father Elmer and his brother Randy (October 1983 motorcycle accident), in the five years preceding his death.
On the morning of May 9, 1989, after a weekend of drinking and partying with friends, Whitley woke up and spoke with his mother, Faye, briefly on the phone. He was then visited by his brother-in-law, Lane Palmer, and the two had coffee and planned a day of golf, after which, Keith had planned to start writing songs for him and Lorrie to possibly record when she returned from her tour. His brother-in-law departed at approximately 8:30 a.m., telling Whitley to be ready within an hour. Upon returning, Palmer found Whitley face down on his bed, fully clothed.
The cause of death was acute ethanolism (alcohol poisoning), and Davidson County medical examiner Charles Harlan stated that his blood alcohol level was .477 (the equivalent of 20 1-ounce shots of 100-proof whiskey and almost five times over the then Tennessee level of 0.1 legal intoxication limit, and nearly six times over the current .08 legal limit to drive), and contained ethyl alcohol. . Whitley was 34 years old. 
The day after his death, Music Row was lined with black ribbons in memory of Whitley. He is buried in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville, Tennessee.