Die Laughing

I have several times in my life met individuals who have never been to a funeral. I cannot imagine this. Funerals have always been a part of my life. My parents were both from rather large families. My mother was one of seven children, and my father one of twelve. And both were among the younger siblings in their respective families. So growing up I had tons of aunts and uncles and older cousins—old enough to die even. Funerals were a part of my upbringing.

The first funeral I can remember was an uncle, married to my Aunt Lou. I was about three. That started the ball rolling. Then there was another uncle when I was about seven. Then another uncle. Then an aunt. Then my grandfather. A few older cousins began to go. It was beginning to look like a trend. The peak was reached when I was about thirteen. One fall day I lost my grandmother. This was my mother’s mother, who lived with us while I was growing up. Then an aunt died about a week later. Then another aunt about two weeks after that. I lost my other grandmother about two months later. This was definitely getting ridiculous. 

By the time I was out of high school, our family photo album began to seem like a chronicle of the killing fields. This one’s gone. So’s that one. And another one bites the dust. I was beginning to feel like I was related to Don Corleone. Did all Morrises and Fraziers and Shiffletts and Crawfords walk around with targets on their backs? The one saving grace is that there were a lot of us. I guess we could afford a little thinning out!

Growing up with all these deaths, and then getting into the profession I am in (i.e., pastoral ministry), means that through the years I have spent a lot of time in funeral homes and at funerals. I guess this has caused me to develop a rather unusual perspective on death. Maybe I am somewhat desensitized to the whole thing. I certainly feel on familiar ground when in a mortuary. I suppose you could say I appreciate the “home” in funeral home. And as a result of this morbid and somewhat bizarre view of death that I have, I often see humor where others don’t. What I am trying to say is, some really hilarious things can happen at the saddest of times.

Take for instance a funeral procession I was in a few years back. My good friend Jerry had lost his uncle. Nothing funny here. A sad event, indeed. However, this time of grief ended up with a bright ray of mirth shining through it. Jerry and his wife Kathy were giving Jerry’s Mom a ride from the church to the cemetery. They knew she would be quite upset at the loss of her brother. So they asked if their sons, Kenneth (aged 10 at the time) and Christopher (then 4), could ride with us to the cemetery. As we left the church, Sue and I heard Kenneth and Christopher discussing the present situation. As is often true with little children in such an experience, Chris was full of questions. He didn’t understand what was happening. Kenneth tried to explain. As their conversation progressed, Christopher’s queries began to turn to what happens after a person dies. Sitting in the front seat, I could sense that Kenneth was warming to his subject. You could tell from what he said and how he said it that he saw this as a great opportunity to share his faith with his little brother. This exercise in personal evangelism went something like this:

Kenneth: “Well, Chris, when you die you go to heaven.”
Chris: “How do you get to heaven?”
Kenneth: “You have to ask Jesus into your heart. If you have Jesus in your heart, then you go to heaven.”
Chris: “But I don’t want to go.”
Kenneth: “What do you mean? Don’t you want to go to heaven when you die?”
Chris: “No.”
Kenneth: “Well, if you don’t want to go to heaven, then where do you want to go when you die?”
Chris: “I want to go to Toys R Us!”

Such is heaven to a child.

You never can tell how a child is going to react to death or a funeral. I remember one lady we knew many years ago. Someone in our church had died. She wanted to come to the funeral home for the viewing, but she was hesitant. Her young child had never been exposed to death. Her son was about 5 or 6, old enough to perhaps be frightened or traumatized at the sight of a dead body. But she finally came anyway and brought him along. Deciding to expose him to death’s grim reality, she held him up to view the casket. Much to her surprise, he appeared undisturbed at the sight of the dead body. He stared unflinching at death in all its pale horror. Indeed, if anything, he appeared rather intrigued at the sight. After she put him down, he stood and watched the whole scene for a while. Then, as will happen with children, he began to be bored. After several attempts to entertain himself, he finally came to his mom in great frustration. “Mom,” he said, “Aren’t there any more dead bodies we can look at?”

In many ways, funerals are rather bizarre affairs. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I think they are important, even necessary. They serve a valuable function for the living. But you must admit they are a strange way to exit this world. Perhaps Tony Campolo put it all into perspective. In speaking about the sin of pride, he once reminded us that we should never get a big head. After all, he said, one day they are going to take you out, say a few words over you, throw dirt in your face, then everyone is going to go back to church and eat potato salad.

Speaking of eating… My wife told me about one fellow who was quite well known in the small town where she grew up. Bill was his name. Everybody thought Bill was somewhat odd, to say the least. He would show up at every funeral in town. It didn’t matter if he knew the person or not. People often commented on his eccentric habit. But few stopped to think about the fact that every funeral was followed by a free meal.

Funerals, like weddings and family reunions, bring out either the worst or the best in people. Often both, and often on the same day. I have frequently seen this in my own family. Funerals in my family can be quite dramatic affairs. It is a literal fact that there have been some Morris funerals that required a police escort—not on the way to the cemetery, but at the grave side itself. Arguments and fist fights have been seen at more than one mountain graveyard ceremony.

Everyone in my family may not fight at funerals, but boy can they mourn. They have it down to a fine art. Nothing can lessen their grief. They are bottomless wells of sorrow. Some really get into lamenting loudly. Others go into instant shock, almost catatonic in appearance. Still others have a macabre fascination with memorializing the dead. I had one cousin who used to carry a Polaroid camera to every funeral. He would take a snapshot of the dear departed lying in state. He would then pin these up in his living room, sort of a wall of remembrance. He had rather a large collection by the time he himself departed this earth. This same guy was also a sensational mourner. One of the best I have ever seen. He didn’t just cry, he sobbed. He didn’t just say good-bye, he heaved with anguish. He would hold the hands of the deceased, stroke his/her cheeks, rub his/her hair. He would usually so work himself into a paroxysm of grief that before it was all over he would be practically prostrate on top of the corpse, kissing his loved one’s lips and smudging the embalmer’s work with his profuse tears. It was quite a sight.

I mentioned that some funerals can actually be violent. I close our morbid journey with a tale of such a nature. Now, you must understand something of the ecclesiastical background of my mother’s family to appreciate what I am about to relate. They were originally raised Brethren, plain dressers and simple folk. Later they converted to old-time holiness Pentecostal. With such a spiritual foundation, it is not surprising that many things were absolutely taboo: neckties for men; pants, make-up, jewelry and “bobbed” hair for women. You understand, they were Holiness with a capital “H.”

Now, my Aunt Lou and my mother both left home at an early age. They moved to the “Big City,” first to New Jersey and later to Richmond. However, they not only moved to the Big City, they adopted Big City ways, ways that in the eyes of those back home seemed carnal, worldly, ungodly. I guess to those in the small country church they grew up in, Aunt Lou and Mama were Worldly with a capital “W.”

In 1955 my grandfather died. This was Mama and Aunt Lou’s father. Of course, the Big City girls went home. And of course they dressed up for their father’s funeral. That is, they dressed up in ways they now understood to be proper. They were smartly adorned with stylish hairdos, bright red lipstick, eye shadow, mascara, and rouge (remember, this was the mid-1950’s).

The funeral was held in that little Pentecostal church in the hills of Greene County. The house was packed. One of the attendees was a fiery and devout saint of renown, who shall remain nameless to protect her innocence. We’ll just call her Sister R. Well, Sister R. was highly offended at the sight of these citified Jezebels invading the Lord’s house. Didn’t matter if it was their father’s funeral, this was God’s house and should not be violated. So Sister R. took it upon herself to preach these wayward girls a little sermon. When she felt the Lord was upon her, she danced and shouted her way to over to Aunt Lou, who happened to standing in the central aisle of the church.

Now Sister R. was known for her homiletical skills. She jumped and jerked “under the Power.” She waved her finger in Aunt Lou’s face. She told her what a disgraceful sight she was. She preached her a good little sermon. And while she preached, she shouted and danced on Aunt Lou’s toes. I don’t mean figuratively. She was literally shouting all over Aunt Lou’s feet.

Well, Aunt Lou was a bold and feisty woman. (Most women in my family are.) She took it all in, but not for long. After a short while, she warned Sister R.: “M.A…. [Those were Sister R.’s initials] M.A., I am telling you. You had better leave me alone. If you don’t, you’ll regret it!”

But Sister R. was on a mission. She would not be deterred from her sacred duty. She knew what she had to do. She continued to dance and shout and preach.

Aunt Lou again warned her. But she would not desist.

By now, Aunt Lou was about out of patience. With Sister R. still hopping and shouting, Aunt Lou warned her one last time. But, nothing doing. The sermon, and the foot stomping, continued.

Finally, Aunt Lou had all she could take. So with fire in her eyes that was as bright as her lipstick, she reared back, balled up her fist, and with one mighty blow popped Sister R. right in the kisser. Yes, it’s true. Aunt Lou laid out Sister R. right there in the church. As Sister R. lay there, sprawled on the floor in the center aisle, Aunt Lou gingerly stepped over her and went back to grieving over her departed father.

Yep, you never know what might happen at a funeral!

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