A few weeks ago, in my reality TV cruising lethargy, I happened upon a show focused on unique, some might say over-the-top, funerals. I wasn’t paying all that much attention, but one was country-and-western themed; another featured people dressed up like bacon and eggs because the deceased had been a big breakfast fan; and, in the third, I think they had the casket on wheels and speeding around a racetrack.
Having so recently held one, I’m fine with the personalized funeral/memorial service. And I kind of like the fact that people aren’t so spooked by death that they can’t have a bit of fun with it. But having Uncle Johnny dress up like a slab of bacon or a carton of OJ just seems to be trying a bit too hard. It makes it look like the family really wants their 15 minutes of fame and, if they can’t get it any other way, they’ll latch on to funeral theater of the absurd.
Fame! I want to live forever. And I will, on YouTube, doing karaoke to Honky-Tonk Angel at Cousin Maybelle’s wake.
The latest in funerals, however, is not just about burying Daddy in his Caddy. It’s about propping up the deceased and having them hang out at their wake or funeral, not confined to the old pine box, but posed in some real life scene, tableau vivant without the vivant.
Having grown up Catholic in a time and place where a) people (including children) attended wakes, and b) the bodies of the dead are on display (“open casket”), I am no stranger to having dead bodies as part of the scene.
If I hadn’t grown up being able to comment on how good the stiff looked – “they did a really good job” – I might well find the practice weird and barbaric. But, hey…
Of course, mostly the stiff didn’t look all that good. They were, after all, dead. And sometimes they looked too good. When my grandmother died, the O’Connor Brothers were somehow able to shave a couple of decades off of her. So, rather than looking 97, she only looked 77. For years, we all talked about wanting the ‘Nanny beauty treatment.’
Nonetheless, I think I would find it quite startling to walk into a wake or funeral and see a body propped up “doing” something other than doing what a dead body is supposed to be “doing,” i.e., lying there dead.
But to each his or her own, and to Miriam Burbank, who recently died in New Orleans, her own meant spending:
…her service sitting at a table amid miniature New Orleans Saints helmets, with a can of Busch beer at one hand and a menthol cigarette between her fingers, just as she had spent a good number of her living days. (Source: NY Times)
There have been a few of these service in New Orleans – socialite holding glass of champagne, derby-wearing band-leader leaning on his cane - but the custom has really taken hold in Puerto Rico.
Viewings there in recent years have included a paramedic displayed behind the wheel of his ambulance and, in 2011, a man dressed for his wake like Che Guevara, cigar in hand and seated Indian style….The body of Christopher Rivera, a boxer who was shot to death, was propped up in a fake boxing ring for his wake in January in San Juan, P.R.
I like to keep the “fun in funerals” as much as the next mourner, but there’s something just a bit to Madame Tussaud-y about all this.
Nonetheless, I will take a moment to think outside of the box, and beyond the bag of ashes that I will someday become.
If I were going to have this kind of setup as my last word, what sort of display would I want?
- Sitting on the couch with my nose in a book, with the Red Sox on in the background?
- Poised over the keyboard, composing my final blog post?
- Hanging around with family and friends, drinking wine and gabbing? Only I’d be the one who was embalmed/ taxidermed. That’s no fun!
In real life – make that real death – it’s actually not something I’m going to have to worry about.
And I really don’t want to continue this thought experiment by thinking about how my friends and family would be portrayed. If we were the type to prop up the dead.
Nope. Not going there…
And I hope I never have to see anyone I know propped up in fighting pose in a boxing ring after his or her final bell has been rung, and they’ve been KO’d into the big squared circle in the sky.
A somber tip of the mourning bonnet to my sister Kath, for sending me the link to this article.