Commentary: Dying Laughing | KERA News

Commentary: Dying Laughing

Dallas, TX –

Death and the agonizing ritual of burial have always fostered an unholy blend of despair and gallows humor. One famous episode on the 1975 Mary Tyler Moore series was the funeral of Chuckles the Clown, when Mary inexplicably begins laughing uncontrollably. The underlying message? There lie ironic undercurrents at any funeral. And irony is the root of great, even greatly inappropriate, droll wit.

My introduction to irreverent mourning began early when, as a kid, we buried a flashy neighbor named Amanda. Although tragic she died, who could ignore that her claim to fame was her natural "Swedish blonde" hair, but she died with Miss Clairol on her roots. The story went; Amanda had a migraine and took a barbiturate pain killer. And while giving herself a touch-up, she went from being under the weather to under the water in her bathtub, still holding a half-finished highball in her hand, which I thought sounded sorta "worldly". But, when the priest described Amanda's "God given Nordic beauty", my wayward parents abruptly snorted in unison like asthmatic javelinas.

Years later, when my grandmother died, I commented to the family that she looked wrong in the casket because she wasn't wearing her glasses. Everyone agreed so they dispatched me to retrieve them, which I did, handing the case to the cadaver cosmetician. As people filed past her at the church, I noticed reactions beyond the requisite tears. One Aunt's hands were clutching her pearls like she'd seen a ghost. Then I filed past and realized the case I delivered had evidently contained Grandmother's sunglasses. Mother was both horrified and wildly amused realizing, however inadvertently, I sent her mother to heaven wearing shades.

That was an accident; I'm not sure what you call it when my next door neighbor Chuck died. At the funeral home, his widow was hurt to see so few flowers in his viewing room. So, spotting a sea of unattended flora next door, I decided to briefly borrow a triumphant standing easel spray and placed it next to Chuck. Unfortunately, the family of the intended recipient began arriving. There was no discreet way to return their show-stopper from Chuck's room since the entire family was admiring his splashy arrangement, although confounded; who were "Denise and Tony", the names on the card? Feeling guilty, I impulsively entered a third room and purloined a carnation showpiece and delivered IT to the original man's congregation. However, when someone read this card aloud, inscribed, "We'll make love in heaven. Love, Marla", the dead man's significant someone became bellicose, bellowing, "Who the hell is Marla?"

Well, I meant well.

Laughing at tragedy has its flip side which is crying for joy. When I found my sweet black tom cat Carlito lying dead in the street, I painfully buried him and began drowning my sorrows. Then, looking up from my Scotch, there was little Carlito meowing in the window. God knows whose cat I buried 30 minutes prior, but it wasn't my kitty unless he rose from the dead. This time the funeral really was funny because the corpse was purring loudly.

Ah. If only death could always have a happy ending.

Rawlins Gilliland is a writer from Dallas.

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