Humor and Death
On the surface of it, it would seem that humor and death are literally opposites of human emotions and experience. I have found nothing really funny about death, although some of the most hilarious events in my life and career have indeed happened on funerals.
There seems to be nothing funny about the painful emotions that death creates, namely deep, profound, acute grief – nothing funny about pain and grief. Grief hurts; death can be terribly untimely, unexpected, and inappropriate even though the death rate is always 100%.
The human emotions caused by death and grief can kill. People can and do self-destruct when confronted with such inevitable life situations. Not everybody, to be sure, but enough to capture our attention.
As a funeral director I have, as have colleagues, been subjected to death humor regularly. I need not elaborate; needless to say we all in funeral service have experienced it, and what is impressive is that most of us understand the genesis of such behaviors.
I have long felt that people have a natural built in fear of death. This seems a good thing in a way. A respectful fear of death certainly teaches people to avoid needless dangers in life. However this learning about death's fearful possibilities is not something we are born with, it is developed learning, and in the absence of this type of learning people grow up with the meaningless idea that death has nothing to do with them, and if and when the subject pops up, humor is often used to distance a person from a subject that they are fearful of and hence causes them anxieties, and few if any people want to feel anxious. We have learned to laugh at death, laugh in the face of death, laugh at deaths power, laugh at people whose calling in life is to minister in this death world, laugh, make sport, ridicule, make jokes, laugh, laugh, laugh.
Being afraid of something is a mighty powerful motivator to create a language that distances people from reality - here is a sample of euphemisms that humans have made up to address the subjects of death/the dead/dying: Dirt nap, pushing up the daisies, passed, ex-, demised, expired, gone to meet their maker, stiff, resting in peace, kicked the bucket, in a better place, six feet under, crossed the bar, bought the farm, belly up, checked out, departed, done for, liquidated, perished, in repose, rubbed out, snuffed out, wasted, cashed their chips, cashed out, checked out, croaked, finished, kicked off, snuffed, gave up the ghost, wacked, terminated, put down, eternal rest, laid to rest, was a goner, rode into the sunset, that was all she wrote.
We have done an excellent job in making up an entire language that makes fun of grief and death, and add to this that certain comedians make big money and get big laughs on this subject and the conclusion can easily be make that laughing at death makes people feel safe, secure, comfortable, and also totally deluded. There is another story to be told to be sure.
I have found that in my seminars I can use humor, but only if it is directed at myself, and certainly if the humor concerning death and grief is not too honest, not too direct, not to disturbing. Interestingly during breaks at my seminars all kinds of people, hospice workers, clergy, funeral directors, cemeterians, come up to me and tell me humorous jokes and stories about grief and death, but oh my if they are told in public, or shared with the group, most everybody seems to freeze.
So humor abounds, jokes are told, people laugh, but concerning death and grief only under certain circumstances which almost always mirror the basic concept of being afraid of death. This environment needs an atmosphere of being safe, secure, and comfortable – and don’t share the death jokes you heard during a break in a seminar. There is a dynamic which makes something funny between two people during a break time, but totally off limits being shared with a group. Interesting?
I once saw a Catholic priest give a seminar to the Association for Death Education and Counseling in Portland, Oregon on humor and death. He had collected an array of cartoons from a variety of sources and all of them were irreverent, candid, blunt, raw but terribly honest. The audience at first was stunned into absolute silence, and I thought to myself “How are you going to get out of this one?” However by the end of the seminar most people were rolling in the aisles while at the same time trying not to laugh too much in front of their colleagues. Such is the utter power of laughing at death, and this was a group of death professionals, the cream of the crop so to speak. I remember when the priest finished and took a break the laughter had vanished and people were judging the rashness, the boldness, the offensiveness of the priest. Interesting? He was not invited back again, even though or in spite of the fact that people were laughing till their sides hurt.
It fascinated me to watch those dynamics – laughing one minute, utterly judgemental the next. Interesting dynamics.
Remember Johnny Carson? Anytime he ran into trouble in his opening monologue he would tell a joke about the world famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California. Johnny Carson, I thought anyway, gave the impressive Forest Lawn company free publicity on national television.
The queen of the muckrakers, none other than good old Jessica Mitford, went to the bank laughing at death and funerals. Hell she made almost an entire career on using humor and death and she perfected her anti-funeral craft with great skill and delivery.
My old professor the Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson, who seriously took Jessica to task wrote in a book review in October of 1963 of Mitford’s book “The American Way of Death,” that “If this fear of death motivates attacks upon funeral directors, Jessica Mitford must be frightened to death of death.” No one ever said it better.
The great Union Theological professor and world acclaimed philosopher Paul Tillich said that death-anxiety is the basic human emotion. It underlies all our other fears and apprehensions about the process of living.
I have concluded that when dealing with such an all pervading and unfocused emotion such as grief and fear, it is not surprising that one’s anxiety leads one to forms of acting out that may seem incongruous, immature, and utterly fearful simply because we are operating in the area of non-rational. The death rate, rationally and bluntly speaking, is 100% but just try to get a group of people or one individual to rationally respond to this fact of life. Some get it, many do not, and the number of those who do not get this rational truth I want to suggest is growing day by day.
People who are fearful and anxious usually have a strong need to reduce the bothersome subject in size to something that can easily handled, or they think can be easily handled. This works sometimes, but usually not with larger than life subjects.
One hundred years ago sex was taboo. People were excellent at reducing the formation of babies to small size bites which they thought made the touchy subject of how every human being on the planet got here more manageable. Hence the small easy story of the “stork,” or the small easy story of the “cabbage patch.” Storks and cabbage patches were much preferred by many people over the honest and rational penis, ejaculation, vagina, sperm, egg – much preferred – and look what happened. Unwanted, untimely, unexpected pregnancies abounded in this country. Sex was too large a life subject to be relegated to the stork or the cabbage patch. Same is true about death and grief the defy reduction, can’t be done successfully.
I believe that each person on this earth is in reality in a fight for life. Though conditions concerning this fight differ greatly, none the less the fight continues and part of this battle is the balance between the tensions created by confronting the larger than life experience such as birth and death, and the necessary humor that we use to embrace these serious sobering issues and not become so overwhelmed by them that we are paralyzed. So at times and at certain places humor has its place.
My son fights in his life his own serious, sobering life issues which have taken time, love, more love and more time. However as serious as his challenges are, the other night he told a story about one of his roommates in the place that is trying to help him and the story involved this chap using crack cocaine. Trust me folks, I have never ever thought cocaine was a humorous subject, but by the time my son was finished telling this ridiculous story I was laughing my ass off.
It is not unusual then, based on the following analysis, that the more serious the human problem, the more likely it is to become a subject for humor. This I believe is the embryo of undertaker jokes. They hurt, they sting, and yes they are horribly boorish but I believe they stem from something much deeper, much more profound than a knock knock joke.
The other side of humor, while it can be caustic and rude, is that it also can be pure mental health. I had a professor in Boston once say that a good belly laugh was worth ten valium. I believe the good professor was correct.
Humor reduces stress, and this is clearly evident on funerals. I remember once a woman came running into the narthex of the church. The place was packed, and she saw me and came running over and in a loud voice said, “Do you have a car for the ball bearings?” I had no earthly idea what she was talking about. I asked her to repeat her question. She yelled in a loud excited voice “My son is one of the ball bearings, do you have a car to take him to the cemetery?” OK now I got it. Pall Bearers were today on this particular funeral transformed into Ball Bearings. Everyone in hearing distance started to laugh, and finally the woman blurted out, “Oh my God, I mean the pall bearers car – good God what did I say?”
Here were people in grief, and out of the blue humor popped its head up, and people released their tension. So yes, while death and grief are serious sobering larger than life experiences, grief and humor are too, and are related, and this relation can be and often is both useful and valid in expressing the natural human emotions which run high at such unique special times in life.
Looking closely at community rituals and practices one realizes quickly that there are many ways that people try to manage their anxiety about death – and usually some form of humorous acting out is a silent yet powerful companion on such activities. Let’s take Halloween for instance.
I used to love Halloween when I was a child. I still love Halloween and relish staying home and handing out all the goodies to the goblins, witches, ninja warriors, and Star War people who ring my doorbell. Great fun and I get a great laugh out of the vampires, ghosts, and monsters.
The theme and history of Halloween, no matter how well it is disguised, is unquestionably death. Interestingly on Halloween parents can without even knowing it act out their death anxieties in a socially accepted manner. They dress their children up in the symbols of death – skeleton suits, death masks, and ghostly dress. They send their children out into the dark of night, fully aware of the hazards, but willing to take that calculated risk (on a temporary basis) so as to have it all over with and then the little ones return back to normal, safe, secure ground in only a few hours. Once again the environment of risking death culminates hopefully in safe and secure ground, but still with the accompanying delusion present. The delusion of course is the reality of death is ever present because on the sobering serious side of life we all know that some little ones every year and at every Halloween never make it home from their night of trick or treats, some are poisoned, some are kidnapped, and some are murdered. Yet the risk is still taken, and to be sure it is a calculated risk on the parent’s part, for unquestionably they are skirting death. It is a powerful silent symbolic death lesson whether people are aware of it consciously or not.
If a person were to stand back and take an rational, clear objective look at the strange and bizarre behaviors that takes place on Halloween night, one would have difficulty making sense of it – unless that person sensed its deeper meaning, which many people do sense to be sure. All Soul’s Day after all is one of the major events in the Christian Church calendar. I believe that when parents accept the events of Halloween and take the calculated risks involved they are probably in the end expressing their need for a symbolic, socially approved way of getting close, in possibly dealing with, albeit it temporarily their own particular form of death-anxiety.
Possibly the intensity and frenzy with which Halloween is prepared for, commercialized, and socially approved may be a clue to the degree of death-anxiety that parents and the community feel in this culture. Halloween has all the ingredients necessary for personal death awareness. Death symbols, risk taking, and possibly hopefully a safe return to the nest. It is like putting one’s big toe in the deep end of the pool and safely pulling it out again. Yet once again even in this metaphor many people drown when they put their big toe in the deep end of the pool.
Certainly our behaviors at Halloween is lighthearted and humorous, but yet in the church calendar the holy drama of the death and resurrection of Jesus lacks humor, its function may well also be related in a big way to the emotional needs expressed in the sportive counterpart that occurs between Easter at one time, and the next Halloween. The theme of both is precisely the same: death.
While I personally do not like undertaker jokes (I have always been thin skinned and ultra sensitive, I can dish it out but can’t take it) I believe that when anybody confronts death honestly, whether it is in jest as in Halloween, or in all seriousness as in Easter, one may very well reduce the intense anxiety that surrounds the emotional hazard of personal death, personal grief, and personal dying.
I believe that in laughing we tend to reduce the magnitude of the perceived threat. I suspect the worst approach is to not laugh at death or take death seriously – but instead to be indifferent to the subject. That possibility, today a reality, frightens me. Death illiterate, death indifferent people I believe can and do dangerous things, for if one is numb, desensitized, neutral, immune, and utterly indifferent to death, I believe one will be the same to life, and can possess the ability to mow down one's school chums without giving much concern or awareness to the literal, rational and honest permanency of their actions for onesself and others. I have been told that cold blooded killers have a soulless look in their eyes. I have a suspicion that it is better for young people to use humor with each other.
Grief and death are sobering subjects. Sex is a sobering subject. Financial security is a sobering subject. Health care is a sobering subject. These subjects are so sobering that if humor is not injected, if some light hearted comment is not made, the reverse of healing and help will certainly occur. Fear will take over, and while this might be a great motivator, too much fear stops the human experience questing for personal peace and contentment in its tracks.
Jack Benny made fun about his being a miser and he was hilarious. He made the obsession with financial security look ridiculous, while all the time watching him I knew that being serious about financial security was important.
George Burns made sport of being old and having sex. He quipped once “Making love after you are 80 is like playing pool with a rope.” Certainly intimacy is important, and it can be terribly sobering, but George Burns helped balance out the realities of aging with a quick joke, which I found really funny. However I told this joke at a seminar and was never asked back.
When the humor eventually comes my way about my job, my work, the endless undertaker jokes, I try to understand, have a laugh, and not take it too seriously. Not too long ago a man came up to me and said “Todd do you know the definition of self-control?” I did not know the answer, so the man replied, “It is the undertaker trying to look sad at an $80,000.00 funeral!” He laughed and laughed. I patted him on the back and said “That is a good one.”
Emotionally, physically, spiritually and socially it is just possible that the humor people employ to face death and grief may be many times a useful and necessary device for reducing one’s own anxieties to small size bites which are palpable and manageable. What I used to view as offensive and inappropriate is I believe, in context, quite valid and helpful.