Laughing at a Funeral: Confronting Grief with Humor

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I had my first good laugh only a day after my father-in-law died. Gary’s alcoholism had blown apart everything good around him, including his relationship with his son Jason, my husband. For years, things were toxic. It wasn’t until Gary died that relief washed over us and we cried tears of sadness for his loss. He once was a good dad. We could remember him that way still.

But back to the laugh. It was Jason’s thirty-first birthday. We scrambled to pack our bags. I raced outside to walk our dog Hans, in a hurry to get on the road to make it to Virginia. We have a dog whose anxiety is so bad, he has to wear a Thundershirt, a straitjacket-like shirt made just for worried dogs. Hans sensed something was wrong and he showed it by having explosive diarrhea all over the sidewalk. His tail slipped through the shit, rapidly flinging it like a helicopter. I jumped to get out of the way. It was the very last possible thing we needed.

I laughed. The laugh rolled over and through me as I called Jason’s sister for help. Literal shit sprayed all over a day that was already shit.

Five years ago, Jason and I became experts at laughing our way through grief. There’s just something about people dying. People get weird. They say and do the wrong thing. It’s also one of those rare times you must deal with the family members you usually have the luxury of avoiding.

I planned Gary’s funeral on my iPhone, Yelping potential funeral directors. We settled on Mr. DeVilbiss, a man who’d buried most of Radford, Virginia from the funeral home he ran out of his own house.  We showed up on his porch after 5PM, and we waited forever for him to let us in. I worried we were too late, but when he finally opened the door, I realized what had taken so long—Mr. DeVilbiss was the oldest man alive.

He slowly led us into his parlor and asked how old Gary was. “Fifty-six,” Jason said. We were already used to hearing the surprise and pity in people’s voices when they responded, “Only fifty-six?!” This time, darkness clouded Mr. DeVilbiss’ face as he said, “Only fifty-six.” This was different. He was jealous.

Sitting in a chair as old as he was, he told us “They say the good Lord takes us when he wants us. Don’t know when he’ll finally take me.” Jason and I looked at each other. Our funeral director was ready to die. And worse, our funeral director was jealous of Jason’s dad for dying first.

If you’re a comedian, people always say you shouldn’t work on the business side of entertainment. You end up spending all your time helping other people get the things that you want. If you’re a person who wants to die, you probably shouldn’t be a funeral director.

Mr. DeVilbiss guided us through the process, peppering in all of details he’d want if he were the one dying. At one point, he told us he’d want his ashes sprinkled using a set of commemorative gold cups. He painfully made his way up the stairs to show us, moaning as he took each step. The stairs creaked. His back creaked. And then, from the top of the stairs, he shouted, “Goddamn it!” He ambled back down. He was fresh out of commemorative gold, ash-sprinkling cups.

Back in the car, Jason and I were laughing too hard to cry.

The laughter continued into the Mexican restaurant Jason’s dad had always loved. Gary used to make jokes about the sign out front. Its script looked more like El Crappo than its actual name El Charro. We met up for dinner with Jason’s friends. A mariachi band overheard us say it was Jason’s birthday. Then this happened:

Forgive me for the vertical video. It was 2009. I didn’t know any better. But do you hear that laugh? It’s desperate, it hurts, but it can’t be stopped.

Later that week, my parents drove up from North Carolina to take us to lunch. We miserably worked our way through sandwiches, knowing that at that moment, my father-in-law was being cremated. My dad, famous in our family for his off-color jokes, leaned into the table. “They say fat people are cremated faster than thin people.” I tentatively asked why. “Because of the grease.”

I laughed but caught myself, looking at Jason. Jason shrugged. “Actually, all of the alcohol probably made him explode.”

Grief is every bit as terrible as everyone always says it is. Sometimes you’re fine. Sometimes you cry on the subway and people move away from you as if you’re contagious. Fall turned into winter.

And then my dad died. It was completely unexpected. Four months earlier, Dad was making cremation jokes in a crowded restaurant. Then suddenly, he was gone. Jason and I had just moved into a new apartment. We slept on a mattress on the floor. I’d tossed and turned all night, unable to fall asleep. No good news comes from phone calls before dawn.  At 5AM, Mom called with bad news.

The experience of burying my father couldn’t have been more different. The whole town loved my dad. Our doors opened to a steady stream of family and friends carrying casseroles and fried chicken and lasagnas. The phone rang so much, it made my mom angry.

And among those family members was Aunt Rita. Aunt Rita is someone I’ve only seen at funerals. After my grandmother’s funeral, Rita broke into Grandma’s shed and stuffed her car so full of tools and Grandma’s things, the trunk wouldn’t close. This time, Aunt Rita brought something special to Dad’s funeral.  She brought her FlipCam.

I know she brought her FlipCam, because I felt it.

At the veteran’s cemetery, a soldier played “Taps” on his trumpet. The music cut through the room, ringing out on that cold, rainy January day.  Though I had heard the song a dozen times before, I realized in that moment, I’d never really listened to it. The music sliced through my chest and into my heart, and I cried out.

And then I felt the slightest tickle in my hair. I whipped around. Aunt Rita had shoved the FlipCam next to my face to get a reaction shot.

Jason gave her the dirtiest look imaginable. I wiped the tears from my eyes.

And then I laughed.

Photo by Hugovk.

Kristen Bartlett is New York City-based comedy writer and performer. Her show The Dead Dads Club is currently running at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. For more information about the show, go here. Follow Kristen on Twitter@KristenCheeks.