Death is typically a somber occasion full of sadness and mourning. Yet funny things can and do happen in the disposal of human remains. While writing my book “After We Die: The Life and Times of the Human Cadaver,” I came to recognize and appreciate the entertainment value to be found in rites and rituals surrounding disposition of corpses.
Humor is often intentionally injected into memorial proceedings such as a wake or funeral. A cadaver represents the continuing embodiment of a particular human being and that being can be fondly evoked by recalling associated humorous expressions and acts. It is good form in the course of a eulogy to recount humorous anecdotes about the late lamented one. And the celebration of life that is the theme of many memorial services regularly includes reminiscences about funny incidents involving the deceased. Thomas Lynch, a mortician and philosopher, describes the celebration of life phenomenon as capturing the “fun” in funeral and the “good” in goodbye. Humorous remembrance is not incompatible with grief and mourning, but rather an appropriate part of the jumble of emotions accompanying a permanent loss.
Eulogies strongly tend to glorify the departed or at least to focus on whatever positive qualities he or she had. Jessica Mitford wryly commented about the exclusive focus on a decedent’s virtues: “No provision seems to have been made for the burial of a Heartily Disliked One, although the necessity for such must arise in the course of human events.” Sometimes, though, the bitter truth will out, and sometimes that truth is humorous. One widow, marking a forty-year marriage to her departed spouse, remarked: “This is the first night in all those years that I know exactly where he really is!” At another funeral, an incredulous son piped up during the eulogies:
“Quit telling all of these lies. My mother was a mean person and everyone here knows it!”
The wake – a period of hours or days set aside for visitation of the cadaver and its mourning family – can also be an occasion for injection of entertainment and humor. A wake can serve to preserve a lifetime image that the deceased cultivated. When my step-brother, a flamboyant criminal trial lawyer, died at age 39, he left instructions for a New Orleans style wake in Trenton, New Jersey. That meant Dixie-land jazz at the funeral home and mourners dressed in white. In Pittsburgh, an avid football fan dictated that his cadaver be posed at his wake sitting in his favorite rocking chair with a t.v. remote control and beer in hand.
Some subcultures have adopted unusual customs in conducting a wake. Nudists have been known to be laid out naked for viewing, with some of their wake visitors following suit. In 1991, his colleagues gathered to recall and honor the fallen Inka Dink the clown. Inka Dink was laid out in full regalia, including yellow wig, immense red bow tie, red striped stockings, and giant yellow shoes. Many of those who came to pay their respects also wore full clown regalia. In another subculture, Irish wakes were sometimes boisterous affairs, including storytelling, singing, dancing, and card playing (occasionally propping the corpse up in a chair and dealing it in).
The epitaph – an inscription on a stone grave marker – was not commonly a vehicle for humorous expression. Cost of inscription varied by length, so epitaphs were usually terse, like “RIP” (requiescat in pace or rest in peace), “gone to rest,” or “asleep in Jesus.” An epitaph’s message was also usually somber, frequently a reminder of the inevitability of death. Memento mori (remember you must die) was a frequent expression; a spent hourglass drawn on the tombstone often conveyed the same dreary message. Yet even while acknowledging the unavoidability of death, epitaphs sometimes reflected a bemused resignation rather than dread. An example from a Connecticut churchyard:
We must all die, there is no doubt;
Your glass is running – mine is out.
A similar bemusement can be found in ways that members of some trades found to mark their demise. An author’s tombstone read “FINIS” while an artist’s stone read: “here lies a finished artist.” On actress Oldfield’s gravestone, the inscription read:
This we must own in justice to her shade,
Tis the first bad exit Oldfield ever made.
When Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in Looney Tunes cartoons, died in 1989, his tombstone repeated his signature line: “That’s all, folks!”
My favorite epitaphs are those that demonstrate an acute sense of humor on the part of the deceased and/or their descendants. In these instances, perhaps the underlying thought is that a humorous epitaph enhances the chances of perpetuating one’s memory. An example: “Here lies Johnny Yeast; Pardon me for not rising.” Another example is the notation on a grave in a Princeton, New Jersey, cemetery:
“I told you I was sick.” A West Virginia miner left instructions for cremation and composed his epitaph: “I made an ash of myself.” A locally renowned housewife and cook had a recipe carved on her gravestone along with the message “I always said the only way you would get this recipe was over my dead body.”
Epitaphs sometimes reflect an acerbic wit casting the deceased, or his trade, in a derogatory light. An example: “Owen Moore is gone away, Owin’ more than he could pay.” Lawyers have been notorious objects of ironic wit. One example:
See how God works his wonders now and then
Here lies a lawyer and an honest man.
Similarly, lawyer John Strange’s epitaph reads: “Here lies an honest lawyer, and that is Strange.” Yet other trades have also been the object of satiric wit. A San Francisco money lender is memorialized:
Here lies old thirty-five per cent;
The more he made, the more he lent;
The more he got, the more he craved;
The more he made, the more he shaved;
Great God! Can such a soul be saved?
One editor’s tombstone inscription reads:
Here lies an Editor
Snooks if you will;
In mercy Kind Providence
Let him lie still
He lied for his living: so
He lived while he lied
When he could not lie longer
He lied down and died
The putative shrewish wife is sometimes commemorated with acerbic wit. A tombstone in one New England graveyard reads: “Here lies my wife, poor Molly, let her lie, She finds repose at last, and so do I.” Another inscription: “Here lies my poor wife, much lamented; She’s happy and I’m contented.” But some widowers are more vituperative in their epitaphs for departed spouses. In a Rhode Island cemetery:
Here lies wife 2d of old Wing Rogers
She’s safe from cares, and I from bothers;
If death had known thee as well as I
He’d ne’er had stopped, but passed thee by,
I wish him joy, but much I fear
He’ll rue the day he came thee near.
Widows have been known to respond with their own acerbic commentary. When her late husband left the admonition on his grave “As I am now, so you must be; Therefore, prepare to follow me,” the widow added in response: “To follow you I’m not content, Unless I know which way you went.”
The previous examples all reflect purposeful injection of humorous elements into the solemn context of disposal of human remains. Sometimes, inadvertent humor results from mishaps or misjudgments in the disposal of remains. The cremains after cremation can weigh pounds and are not always easy to dispatch. Efforts to scatter ashes at sea can become messy when wind blows the remains back on board. Nor are moving ships the only wind hazard. A New Jersey legislator died after requesting that his cremains be scattered over his beloved Cape Cod Bay. The late legislator’s son, an amateur pilot, decided to fulfill his father’s wish. The son rented a small plane and flew over Cape Cod Bay. At an appropriate moment, he slid open the cockpit cover and turned over the urn—only to have the roaring wind plaster all the cremains against his face and the back of the cockpit — not exactly what the decedent had in mind when requesting “scattering” over the bay.
Other examples of bad judgment in scattering cremains at beloved places have surfaced in recent years. In May 2002, a widow’s effort to have her husband’s ashes scattered over his favorite team’s baseball park ended badly. The cruising plane caused a terrorism scare and prompted evacuation of the entire stadium. In November 2005, Christopher Noteboom ran onto the playing field during a football game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers. Noteboom was attempting to dispose of the cremains of his mother, an avid Eagles fan, in a way that would make her “always a part of Lincoln Field and of the Eagles.” As Noteboom ran, a fine powder trailed from a plastic bag until he dropped to his knees at the thirty-yard line and crossed himself. He was promptly arrested. The arresting officers expressed zero tolerance for someone who runs onto the playing field and dumps an unknown substance in a crowded stadium.
Other surviving relatives have displayed more common sense, as well as humor, in disposing of a loved one’s cremains. A widow sought to scatter her late husband’s ashes in a 6th hole sand trap where her late husband, an avid golfer, had often stood. When the golf club denied permission for such disposal, the widow stowed the cremains in her own golf bag and covertly raked them into the sand trap. Consider also comedian Steve Allen’s idea of an appropriate placement for a gum manufacturer’s ashes. Allen announced on a 1981 t.v. broadcast: “Morden W. Chicklett, the chewing gum heir, died today. In accordance with his wishes, he will be cremated and his ashes will be stuck to a chair in a nearby restaurant.” Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has humorously derided the whole cremation enterprise, commenting: “It’s kind of like covering up a crime – burn the body, scatter the ashes around. As far as anyone is concerned, the whole thing never happened.”
The point, again, is that humor has an appropriate place even in the solemn context of disposal of human remains. Don’t be too hesitant to keep the fun in funerals! Just do it in a carefully considered manner.