I was just starting thinking about the commercialization of death about a year ago when I was bowled over by a promotional leaflet sent to me by the UK’s Cooperative Society suggesting what fun death could be! (See above.) My instinctive reaction was: How inappropriate can you get? In my experience, death has brought an end to the fun we could expect to have from life. Indeed, the lyrics of the ‘Grateful Dead’ have not been ringing in my ears.
Now, a year later, I find a long article starting on the front page of the New York Times “Celebrating at his own wake.” Reported in detail by a correspondent, she describes how a fatally-ill, former priest, John Shields, carefully planned his last hours before having a lethal injection administered by his doctor. What he wanted was a wonderfully boozy Irish wake celebrated by some two dozen friends while he was still alive.1
At his ultimate party, Shields’ friends proclaimed their love, gratitude and admiration for their host. Without the increasingly invasive promotional efforts of the funeral trade, the small group expressed their thanks for his friendship and his courage. When one of them planted a kiss on his lips, Shields aroused much laughter when he quipped, “I was just thinking. ‘I’d like more of that.’ then thought, ‘That’s not a good idea.’”
Towards the end of his own wake, Shields had wanted to join in the singing of the verses of a special departure song with the classic Celtic folk lyrics of “The Parting Glass”
But since it falls, unto my lot,
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.
However, a tired and sick Shields was drifting off to sleep, and later managed to wave to his friends as he was wheeled out of the party smiling and telling everyone, “I’ll see you later.”
Perhaps our social attitudes are changing. Maybe it is time to put fun back into our funerals? Could we turn the wake into the party of a lifetime? Promoters suggest a special day themed for the ancient Scots, or New Orleans Jazz, or even a Dadaist celebration? The happy ending of such a wake would be one way to evade our fears of the unknown. Evasion, as well as denial, have been the classic psychological ways of cheering up gatherings which are overcome with grief. As George Bernard Shaw declared: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
At my own father’s rushed funeral in an over-populated Italian cemetery on the outskirts of Rome (where myself and my father’s assistant were the sole mourners on a hot July afternoon) I was informed by a brusque Mafia undertaker that my father was being buried in an all-male section of the cemetery. This was because the law forbade any intermingling of the sexes underground! I almost felt sorry for my departed father, but was certain that even in these circumstances he would find ways to circumvent such mafia-bound, Catholic driven restrictions.
“Not everyone will be in a condition to toast Death’s imminence with champagne, as Anton Chekov did,” wrote The Economist in a recent cover story on “How to have a better death.”2 Perhaps our social attitudes are advancing? Perhaps we are beginning to accept that birth-life-death is a unity to be celebrated? The traditional weak jocularities of funeral orations do appear to be gradually vanishing.
Writing for The Guardian, a part-time observer noted that “Just as weddings have gorged themselves into inflated self-promotion, so funerals are now doing he same. They are becoming extravagant forms of self-expression, designed to articulate our individuality.”3 Certainly the burial costs, not including the catering fees of a good wake, are soaring. Being buried in London’s Highgate cemetery (along with Karl Marx and other celebrities) will cost more than £18,000 (over $20,000). This reminds me of the marvelous observation of Woody Allen, “My grandfather had a wonderful funeral… It was a catered funeral. It was held in a big hall with accordion players. On the buffet table there was a replica of the deceased in potato salad.”4
Funerals were not always as somber as those of the Middle Ages or even of the 19th century. In the time of Homer, for example, the Greek funeral was a three act drama. The body was laid out in the first act, the transport to internment was the second act and the third was the lowering of the body or the ashes into the grave. This scenario presented opportunity for the display of family pride, wealth, solidarity and power.5 However, in those days there was a closer intimacy between the living and the dead. Homer described the dead as “ghosts of worn out mortals.” The dead had to be fitted with their obol, or boat fare, fixed between their teeth. This was a payment for being ferried across the river Styx by Charon, the boatman.6 It was also customary to place a laurel crown on the head of those deceased who had “bravely fought their contest with life.”
The classic Greek ceremony around the grave featured the singing of ritualized lamentations. Sometimes hired mourners dressed in long robes also participated. A chorus of women traditionally uttered a refrain of cries to accompany the sung lamentations. At the end of such burials the women left first to go to the house of the deceased to put the finishing touches on the banquet. However, it was Christianity that truly promoted the belief in life after death which had merely been hinted at by the Greeks.
Of all the global ceremonies surrounding death, none can surpass the creative ways Mexicans celebrate rather than mourn the departed. The Mexican “Day of the Dead” originated with the Aztecs, who before the landing of Columbus, had for centuries spent 30 days every August dedicated to death. The invading Spanish, when introducing Christianity, contracted these lengthy festivities into one day around the All Saints’ and All Souls’ days in November. Today, El Dia de los Muertos continues to be a national celebration to honor those who have passed away.
Gravesites are decorated with flowers, angelitos (little papier-mâché angels) balloons and small altars decorated with candles, memorabilia, photos, as well as food in honor of the dead. The same happens at home where those who have died can be reassured that they have not been forgotten and can enjoy a welcome homecoming. All of this is fun. The family may gather at the gravesites of their loved ones and enjoy a picnic in the presence of the departed. Some may play guitars, sing and even dance. The celebrations can continue with an all-night candlelight vigils where good times will be recalled and toasted with a drink or two.
The tragedy of the shortness of life is tempered not only by sorrow but also by pathos and extraordinary creativity. The pan de muertos (Day of the Dead bread) is a loaf sprinkled with cinnamon and decorated with “bones” especially baked for the occasion. Sugar candy in the shape of skulls and bones are also common. For the family it may be a way of saying “We cheated death because we are now eating you!” More serious papier-mâché skulls and skeletons, as well as clay, wood and plastic representations of the dead come in different sizes and are even esteemed for their artistic craftsmanship. I have collected a small but charming group of such Mexican memento to the dead.
These Mexican celebrations are untainted by the promotional intrusions of large corporations. Exploiting loss for commercial gain still seems most inappropriate to many. Inevitably, death in the capitalist world sells these days: Virgin Holidays suggests flying your way out of grief. Indeed, travel therapy may offer a faster escape from sorrow than some contemporary form of “sociotherapy.” I do recommend drawing on the profoundly celebratory aspects of the Mexicans. As The Economist concluded in its cover story: “A better death means a better life, right until the end.”
1Catherine Porter, “Celebrating at his own wake,” The New York Times, May 29, 2017.
2April 29, 2017.
3Giles Fraser, “The rise of so-called happy funerals…” The Guardian, May 12, 2017
4The Nightclub Years
5Robert Garland, The Greek Way of Death, (1985) p.23
6Yorick Blumenfeld, The Waters of Forgetfulness, (2006)