The Death of the Funeral

It was apparent that there had been a major change in memorial services when Monty Python's song, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" became the #1 requested song at funerals. It's sung (and whistled) by Python Eric Idle in the Movie "The Life of Brian" as he's being crucified.

The Death of the Funeral
Photo by Rhodi Lopez on Unsplash

He prowled around the audience like a menacing, angry standup comic. “He loved you, yes? He was a part of you.” Or was it a closer resemblance to the “photojournalist” character played by Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now.

“What are they going to say about him? What? Are they going to say he was a kind man? He was a wise man? He had plans? He had wisdom? Bullshit, man!” -“photojournalist,” Dennis Hopper, Apocalypse Now

His hair was longish and hanging below his clerical collar was a long necklace with a large cross dangling from it. He was something of an aging, reformed flower child that needed one more stint in hippie rehab. “Remember that time... that time we spent his birthday at the lake? Remember how we laughed and celebrated life so joyously?” he sternly asked what I assume was a family member. He had to pause as the startled relative managed a nod.  

“He” was the officiant at the funeral of a work colleague’s husband. It was midday -a work day - and the memorial service was taking place at a high-end funeral home chapel. The large venue was packed with family, friends, and supportive coworkers. "You know that he loved you, right? Well, he loved all of us... So full of life. Remember that time that we...?" This went on forever. The pacing back and forth, the barking of cherished memories, and a light dose of new-age spirituality. We were looking at our watches after about forty-five minutes of this, and many of us had to trickle out as we needed to return to work. Returning to work was absolutely serene compared to the pacing preacher.

Back in the day, I presented military honors to veterans. This one fella had many years of service. He also had many ex-wives. He was only about 40. I remember all of the ex-wives lining up outside the church going after each other and screaming because each one thought they should be ahead of the others in line. There was also a girlfriend whose little boy was going through DNA testing so she was right in there screaming too. The CAOs...(casualty assistance officers) were trying to calm things down.  -from Deidre G.

It’s the math. As we age, we lose more loved ones. We enter the death demographic and find ourselves attending more funerals, memorial services, or “celebrations of life.” We understand that attending a service for a more distant friend or a co-worker is an act of support. A simple act of love and respect. Wasn't it Yogi Berra that said, "If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't come to yours"?

Within our own families, most of us grew up understanding a fairly standard funeral protocol. A churchy service, a somber eulogy delivered by a clergyman, a hymn or three, maybe a choir, a prayer or two. Possibly a short and earnest tribute from a family member or long-time friend. There were funeral traditions to observe… a casket, (open? closed?) pallbearers, a quick graveside rite, flowers, a committal of the body or cremains… The strangest thing that one might encounter at a funeral ‘back in the day’ might be a cremation! (Oh my!)

Things have changed.

“The Church” is not as strong as it once was. Church membership/attendance, declining for decades, has plunged off of a cliff over the last few years in the US. This goes for all religions and across all demographics.

"Depending on whether religious switching continues at recent rates, speeds up or stops entirely, the projections show Christians of all ages shrinking from 64% to between a little more than half (54%) and just above one-third (35%) of all Americans by 2070. Over that same period, “nones” would rise from the current 30% to somewhere between 34% and 52% of the U.S. population."    -Pew Research, Sept. 2022

Funeral of a co-worker several years ago. They played a vinyl recording of Amazing Grace but the player was set to 78 RPM. Sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks for several seconds until someone turned it to the correct speed, producing that vertigo inspiring wa-wa transition. Everyone joked how the deceased hated long meetings. - from John D.

There has always been a renegade or two that would obtain some kind of clergy credential from a mail-order “seminary.” I seem to recall that at first, this was often to challenge some First Amendment issue, as the recipients often tried to avoid taxes by claiming themselves some kind of church. But it wasn’t too long ago that you would hear about some mail-order Reverend officiating a friend's wedding. This started among the cheeky set… couples wanting to distance themselves from a formal church setting, or maybe just to alarm the parents… “Oh MAMMA! He HAS a preaching license! It’s LEGAL!” But the trend spread, and it is now fairly commonplace. Many of these rent-a-preachers are quite serious about it, and a few even bring faith declarations or traditional liturgy to these “freelance” services.

And then it got weird.

They started getting calls to do funerals. And really, why not? So many people now are completely unaffiliated with any church. Family members of the deceased might ask their own preacher to perform a service, but they would have no relationship with the beloved.. in a religious sense or any other for that matter. Funeral directors routinely officiate a memorial service. Mail-order preachers and sometimes old friends run the show.

At about this same time, people were becoming disenchanted with “traditional” funerals. Sometimes it was due to disaffiliation with their church. Other times faith traditions had been abandoned entirely. Understandings of a possible after-life are all over the place now, along with particular rites to facilitate that transition from the earthly side. And for many? It just seemed easier and more fun to have a “life celebration” rather than an intense church service. You know - party!!!

One of my aunts told us the reason she stayed long after the interment was to make sure funeral workers didn't replace the coffin with a cheaper one or to prevent them from stealing jewelry or items from the casket. Another relative cried so hard her wig fell off. My mom couldn't stop laughing. Had to walk out. -from Myra J.

Let’s face it. So many funeral services are just plain awful. From mail-order pastors to prayerful priests, it’s incredibly hard to know what to say or do during the most intensely emotional time in a family’s life. It’s difficult to get right even among thoughtful, caring officiants. And so, so many don’t. Worse, funerals have an audience that sometimes want to be part of the show. At the “visitation,” homilies and testimonials during a service, the post-service reception, the graveside gathering, the banquet or luncheon to follow… So many moving parts there. All opportunities to witness bizarre behavior by emotional people under intense circumstances. And the line between tragedy and comedy has always been a thin one.

It’s a tough situation (at the very least.) What does one say to someone who has lost a spouse/friend/relative? What kind of emotional state are they in? What kind of religious background do they have, and should you go there even if you knew? What can you say that's meaningful, here?

My parents had a friend that called the stage where your friends start dying more frequently, & you’re attending more funerals, he labeled it “funeralizing” as in “What ‘cha been doing lately?" "I’ve been funeralizing!” - Alice W.

As a result, expressing sympathy becomes a minefield for someone trying to be sensitive or just genuinely thoughtful. On the other hand, the majority of folks tend to just barge ahead with their attempt at compassionate conversation. And so you overhear some of the most bizarre things...  

Fred is Dead. Here is What They Said about old Dead Fred.  

  • “Doesn’t Fred Look Good?” (For an old, dead guy? What are we comparing him to?”)
  • “Fred died doing what he loved to do.” (Meth? Oxy? Snake handling? Riding a motorcycle on the interstate while standing up with a bottle of Jack in one hand a confederate flag in the other?)
  • “Fred really knew how to live.” (Until recently.)
  • “To like Fred, you really had to get to know him…” (No, no you didn’t.)
  • “And once you got to know him…” (It confirmed that yes, indeed, he was an a-hole.)
  • “Fred. Loved. People.” (And he’d still be alive today if Ed Earl hadn’t caught him loving his wife, Crystal after her shift at the Pussy Kat Lounge.)
  • “Fred is someone who could think outside the box.” (Not today.)
  • "Doesn't Fred look like he's sleeping?" (And if he wakes up, there's going to be a LOT of dead folks around here.)
  • “If Fred were here today, he would…” (Be at the bar by now, right after he wiped out the buffet.)
  • “It’s comforting to know that Fred will always be here. He will always be with us.“ (Nope. Not comforting. Not comforting at all. Let’s get Fred in the ground.)

More Dead Fred Thread: The Pinhead Things Folks Said to Dead Fred's Friends and Family

  • "God took Fred because he needed another angel." (Honestly? I mean, did God know Fred?")
  • "Fred is in a better place." (Not hard to believe, look at this dump! Who puts pink curtains on walls and sticks a dead guy in a box at the front of the room?)
  • "God has a plan for Fred." (Really? I bet Fred has some plans of his own.)
  • "It's God's Will." Just... no. Not helpful. Not comforting. Not warm or sympathetic. Just stop.

The first time that I realized just how much funerals have changed was several years ago when I read  that the number one requested funeral music in Great Britain was Monty Python’s song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from their movie “The Life of Brian.” You will recall that it’s a little ditty that is sung (and whistled) at the end of the movie by Eric Idle as he hangs, crucified on a cross. He is trying to cheer up an unfortunate, misidentified Messiah who is being crucified next to him.

…Life’s a piece of shit
When you look at it
Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughin' as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you
Always look on the bright side of life…
-Monty Python, "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," sung by Eric Idle

Did I mention this is a crucifixion scene? And that this is still one of the most requested songs at British funerals? (It replaced “My Way,” the Frank Sinatra standard, so it’s not like this was a major drop in funeral decorum.) It has now, btw, crossed the Atlantic and odds are that you can expect it at a funeral near you, very soon.

And before we leave the Pythons' good company, we should take a look at another contribution that they made to unconventional, informal funerals. Graham Chapman, (who played the misidentified King of Kings in The Life of Brian,) died of cancer when he was only 48 years old. Though there was a small, private family ceremony, the Pythons gathered a couple of weeks later to "honor" him. Some would call his memorial 'shock humor.' Cleese started the service, "He would never forgive me...if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste." It was quite the eulogy. Take a listen -

John Cleese’s eulogy for Graham Chapman : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive
Graham Chapman, coauthor of the Parrot Sketch, is no more. He has ceased to be. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. He’s kicked the bucket, hopped the twig,...

I was at a funeral for a friend I had known since junior high, an individual known for a larger than life personality and temper. There was a light rain falling outside. The service went well until the end. They played a favorite song and, as the final note ended, there was a really gigantic thunder clap and the power went out for a second then came back on. There was a second of stunned silence and then the congregation roared with laughter. It could not have been a more obvious last word by the deceased.
-  from Don W.

“Hymns The Lord Is My Shepherd and Abide With Me are the second and third most popular choices. However, more than 84% of funeral directors say hymns or classics are declining in popularity quicker than any other music type.”

Great Britain, (and much of Western Europe) is a bit more secular than the U.S., but the decline of the church (and its influence on traditional rituals) is fast catching up here. It wasn't that long ago that you couldn't imagine attending a funeral anywhere other than a church. Or you wouldn't think of showing up dressed in less than business or semi-formal wear.

Dad was a smoker most of his adult life. He developed COPD in his final years. He had to give up cigs near the end, but he always insisted on carrying a pack in his Dickies jumpsuit pocket for security.
When he passed, my two sisters and I went to make his funeral arrangements. The coffin we picked had a little drawer in the seam of the lower lid. The funeral director pointed out the feature. We could include any mementos we wanted.
My middle sister asked us if it was ok to put in a pack of his favorite cigs. My older sister quickly replied, only if his albuterol inhaler goes too. And so it did.
from Lisa P.

The last service I attended was a "celebration of life" at a great neighborhood bar. It was what I imagine an Irish Wake must be like. I had known the deceased as a neighbor and the parent of one of my son's friends. One of those all-around great guys, he had died suddenly, leaving behind a wife and three almost-adult sons. The place was packed, someone had a dad-rock playlist going on the jukebox, and the bar was open. The pool tables were covered with food and the attire ranged from business-casual to faded jeans. An avid, lifelong surfer, there were small, plastic party-favor-sized surfboards to carry home with you along with a photocard featuring a lovely obit. There was no formal service of any kind, though his boys and maybe one or two folks gave quick, thoughtful tributes. Toasts were made and stories were shared. There was laughter and a few tears. Importantly, the atmosphere was such that you could extend condolences and express sympathy to the family without feeling the strange pressure of a formal reception line. ("So sorry to hear..." NEXT, "So sorry to hear...")

Maybe the family had a quiet religious service somewhere else, but I didn't hear mention of one. And in the end, the warmth of a group of friends and supporters seemed stronger and more authentic than 90% of the formal funerals I've ever attended.

My partner and I once attended a funeral that included a large floral display with a white phone at the center, and a card that read "God has called." My partner looked at me and said "When that happens, don't answer."  - from Thomas G.

So I'm all in for the whole "celebration of life thing." Or maybe a quick something-or-other at the church with that Wake at the bar afterward. Or maybe an informal graveside with a New Orleans "First Line" jazz band...
Of course, you don't want to get too carried away.

Like, The Coffin Dancers... maybe too much?

More Of This!

In the end, and we're talking about The End... you can line it all up. Plan the big event. Get out the spreadsheet, come up with a budget, choose your coffin or the urn (or urns if you want to be passed around like party favors.) You can pick the band or audition the bagpiper. Buy some real estate for your bones (with or without an eternal flame? We have a great new water feature over here in Gethsemane Gardens...)

But most often, it's like that poor, fictional cowboy... dying out in the middle of nowhere.

"It matters not, I've been told
Where the body lies when the heart grows cold
Yet grant, o grant, this wish to me
O bury me not on the lone prairie."
"I've always wished to be laid when I died
In a little churchyard on the green hillside
By my father's grave, there let me be
O bury me not on the lone prairie."

So think about that poor bastard on that desolate, windswept plain. Trusted his buddies to do right by his bones. That's all of us, right? Hoping they'll keep that grave of yours clean? I mean, do you trust those kids of yours? Hell no! And if your ex somehow gets involved in things (and you know she'll try,) your remains are gonna end up being donated for forensic medical experiments with your funeral reception held at Taco Cabana. After your ungrateful family spends that funeral GoFundMe money on a weekend cruise, you won't even get a narrow grave. What can you do? Promise to haunt them if they don't honor your wishes?

Oh, bury me not and his voice failed there
But we took no heed to his dying prayer
In a narrow grave just six by three
We buried him there on the lone prairie.
And the cowboys now as they roam the plain
For they marked the spot where his bones were lain
Fling a handful o' roses o'er his grave
With a prayer to God his soul to save.
#13 Michael Martin Murphey - O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie
“Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” is a cowboy folk song. Also known as “The Cowboy’s Lament”, “The Dying Cowboy”, “Bury Me Out on the Lone Prairie”, and “Oh, Bury Me Not”, the song is described as the most famous cowboy ballad. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100…

And the funniest funeral story I ever heard?

First, thanks to all of you who submitted some of your own funeral experiences. I got a chuckle out of each one, even though I couldn't use them all.

I do some work with a regional conference of one of the protestant denominations, producing a handful of clergy retirement/tribute videos every year. I usually ask the pastors if they have any funny stories from a lifetime of presiding over weddings and funerals. Some of the best ones are told after the camera is put back in the case, but I've got one good one that was shared with the denomination.

The preacher was serving in deep East Texas. He was conducting a graveside service out in a red dirt cemetery amidst the towering pines. It took place under a canvas funeral awning, rain had been falling for several days. The family and friends packed together under the tent-top as the funeral director, a diminutive, skinny man in a cheap suit directed the pallbearers and carefully placed the flower arrangements around the coffin under the still-dripping trees.

The preacher read from the Good Book, lead the group in prayer, and committed the body back to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust (more like mud to mud, he thought, as the drizzling rain started again.) He began to conclude the service, and just as he came to the place where he expected the funeral director to dismiss the group, he noticed that he was gone. Before he could even look around, the group heard a muffled, high-pitched voice ask for help, not unlike Vincent Price in The Fly... "Help me, help me!" The small gathering gasped as they realized that the voice was coming from the grave itself. The poor man had slipped as the edge of the grave had collapsed and he tumbled in. Several men ran over and rolled back some of the astroturf to pull the hapless fellow out.

He was covered from head to toe in that slimy, muddy, East Texas red clay. The pastor said that he and the entire group were speechless and collectively held their breath. The little man finally broke the ice when, dripping mud puddles, he looked up, adjusted his collar, and said, "Is my tie OK, preacher?"

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word,
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin,
Give the audience a grin.
Enjoy it, it's your last chance anyhow.
Always look on the bright side of life
Always look on the right side of life...

Chris Newlin worked around Tee-Vee stations before he went out on his own and continued to work in the world of video and multi-media production. Then came iPhones and YouTube accounts and 5th graders producing feature films on their laptops. So now he sits around full of self-pity and too many Keystone Lights. He still enjoys sunsets, long walks on the beach, and a good bowel movement, at least every now and then.