Life, in many ways, is ridiculously hilarious, and that doesn’t stop in death. Yes, that’s right — I am among the group of people who proudly put the ‘fun’ back in ‘funeral,’ acknowledging one of the most important and inevitable life events we will face with a more lighthearted spirit. There is nothing funny, of course, about the loss of a loved one and the cold reality that you will never see or touch someone again, that you can never stop by a home and be welcomed in with open arms, that you will never be able to shoot over a quick email to say hello, that you will never sit together at someone’s wedding and snark at the terrible buffet foods.
The huge losses that come with death are far from amusing. But death itself as a social construct can be funny, and facing death with good humour can act not only as a coping mechanism to shield ourselves from reality — the way it’s commonly read and described — but as a way to genuinely engage with death. It’s not for everyone, and morbid humour cannot be forced upon those who find it uncomfortable or actively unpleasant, but it has a role in modern society.
We used to have a much more intimate association with death, and it was one that included humour. It wasn’t just that people died in their homes and we cared for them ourselves, playing an active role in every aspect of death. It wasn’t just the sin eaters who appeared at the bedsides of the dying to take on their sins so they could pass freely into the next life. Our relationship with death was even more immediate and direct than that.
We buried people directly in our churches — mind, this was a time when most people went to church — with people preferentially snapping up spots by the altar. If you’ve ever visited some of the world’s most notable churches, you may have noticed that famous graves within are featured prominently — hell, some people even split up their bodies to have their hearts buried in one place and their bodies in another, in a classic have cake/eat it too situation — but it wasn’t just famous people who got buried at church. Everyone did, until the church ran out of real estate, at which point older residents might be turfed out for new ones, or you’d be exiled to the churchyard. Ever wonder why incense is so big at church rituals? The fact that churches must have reeked in the summer may have something to do with it.
Bodies were also buried within city limits, and it wasn’t uncommon to stack multiple people within the same grave as a space and cost-saving measure, so you never knew who you might be sharing space with, or digging up during the preparation of a grave. People came to hang out in graveyards — they were popular picnic spots and people visited their friends and family members. This is a tradition retained still in some parts of the world — in Mexico, for example, Day of the Dead celebrations involve visiting the graveyard to hold a big party, and grave visiting is important for Chinese Buddhists as well. In Greece, people exhume their family members to put them in ossuaries, making a little personal visit a year after death. But in most of the West, once someone is buried, that’s it — a few visits in the first few years, but after that, a plot left abandoned. If someone does make a habit of visiting a grave on a regular basis, it’s pathologised instead of acknowledged as a perfectly reasonable activity — how else are you going to catch up with dead friends and family? It’s not like they can come to you!
The thing is, cracking jokes around death is one way to address death, but also, in a strange way, to become more intimate with it. When I’m joking about a decedent, in a way it feels like we are joking together, taking advantage of this one last chance to share something that’s about to disappear forever. When we tell funny stories at memorials, it’s our way of acknowledging that the dead weren’t sombre saints, but it’s also our way of lifting our teacup to them — because I’d rather that people crack jokes over my coffin than engage in performative weeping. Yes, death is sad — more for the survivors than the decedent, who likely doesn’t care — but it’s also a fact of life.
Culturally, an intimacy with death would seem to breed a greater comfort with it, too. As long as death is a scary and distant unknown, it’s a terrifying thing to face when Death comes for us, which is going to happen eventually. When death is a real thing we’ve touched and felt, perhaps even a funny thing, it’s much easier to set our lives in order, say our friendly goodbyes to friends and sidekicks and accomplices, and move on — I’d much rather go out hand in hand with Death, making wry remarks and gagging at the ugly tiles in the morgue’s hallway, than be dragged kicking and screaming from life.
I don’t want people to be sombre around my deathbed, filled with the weepies; that doesn’t sound like my idea of a fun time at all. I want people having fun, playing music, making jokes, laughing at me, and living all around me, because death is funny — and also because I want to know that when I pass on, those I leave behind aren’t going to die with me.
Image: Death, Nathan Proudlove, Flickr