Imagine you’re a neanderthal. You’ve yet to develop language, and your other communication skills are pretty primitive. Now imagine you’re hunting in the woods with your Winchester Model 70 Featherweight (they had those back then).
All of a sudden you bump into something and your “fight or flight response” is activated. Should I point my gun at whatever this thing is, or should I run away, yelling at the top of my lungs? It turns out, that the thing you bumped into is, in fact, another neandertal from another part of the city (those were a thing too). You point your gun (because that’s your first reflex) and they other neanderthal points his at you. You can’t speak, but instead of shooting each other you break out into laughter. Because laughter has always been a way to disengage the fight or flight response, and it’s thought to predate language. Laughter calms things down. It’s an actual scientific factoid.
It even calms things down around death and dying, which is why you’ll often hear jokes and laughter at funerals, or in other death situations. It helps calm the mind from fear, grief and other things that cloud our thinking when we’re confronted with the reality of mortality.
A couple months ago we had a death call at a person’s home. We got there and there was tension in the air. One side of the family was in the house with the decedent, while the other side had been forced outside of the house. The family inside had four bodyguards standing at the door in case the outsiders tried to go in and see the deceased one last time.
When I got inside the house, I was asked — because apparently, I look both nice and stupid — if I could go outside and try to calm the outsiders down. I told the family inside the house that I’d do it if they allowed those outside the house to view the deceased as I removed her out to our van.
“Fine,” they said.
I went outside and brokered the deal: you guys outside can view the deceased when I take her out of the house just as long as you don’t try to force yourselves into the house.
“Deal,” they said.
When I came back inside, the family asked me if they agreed to the terms.
I looked the husband in the eye and told him we solidified the deal by drinking a round of Jack Daniels.
It really wasn’t a funny joke. But because our brains crave the calm of a good laugh when things are stressful, the whole room erupted in laughter. The tension broke. Instead of anger, there were tears. And instead of fighting, even a hug.
Is a joke really that powerful?
Yes. Yes, it can be.
And that power can go both ways. A well-timed, well-intentioned joke can, in the right circumstances, can be a force for good.
In other circumstances, it can do the exact opposite. This is the case for Kelly Sadler.
Here’s the low-down if you haven’t been following the news. I should note that her comment has been hedged by calling it an in-the-moment joke:
Kelly Sadler, a communications aide in President Trump’s administration, reportedly said during a meeting Thursday that Sen. John McCain’s opposition to CIA nominee Gina Haspel “doesn’t matter” because “he’s dying anyway.”
I started to pay rather close attention to politics around Clinton’s second term. By the time Bush v Gore rolled around, I was hooked on the political soap opera. For about five years I studied political theory in my spare time, browsing through the old stuff from The Federalist Papers to Locke’s work, and even writing about it (essays that I would never, ever share publically). Today, I stay up-to-date on the political world, have my opinions, but generally stay away from the fray.
Politics have been tense for as long as I’ve known them. But they’ve never been tenser (and yes, I looked it up … it’s “tenser” and not “more tense”) than they are right now. It’s. Hot. No two words in America (and maybe even the world) are more divisive than “Donald” and “Trump.” For those who support him and those who don’t, those words have separated friends, families, and neighbors in the real world. There are a lot of thoughts and feelings. In the world of social media, both sides of the political spectrum have objectified the “other side” to the place that we no longer view “them” as people, but as “enemies of the American way.”
I used to think funeral homes held a lot of tension, but there’s clearly another house on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that holds more. Kelly Sadler works there. She’s staff there. I know what it’s like to work in a tense environment.
Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with making jokes about mortality. Everyone in my family jokes about their own and each other’s mortality. Even my grandfather — who is likely closest to his end in our family — gives and receives some funny lines about his future.
But, there are two general rules I follow when I make death jokes: intent and proximity.
One. I always mean well when I make a joke in a death context. It might be to break the ice, to calm the bereaved, or to just make someone smile. It doesn’t mean my joke is funny, it doesn’t mean it will be received well, but — for the most part — people know I’m not being mean.
Two. If I’m not relationally close to the deceased or the bereaved, it’s off limits. As a funeral director, I’m invited into the inner circle. I’m given a pass to be myself around the bereaved, which is why this whole job is an honor. So, there are times when I’ll make a joke as a funeral director like I did in the story above. But, if I don’t know the deceased, if I’m not a part of the inner circle, if I’m not close, keep your jokes to yourself. Death is natural, but love makes it sacred. Treat it as such.
I don’t know Kelly Sadler’s intent behind the John McCain joke. She may have meant it as malicious (it certainly sounds malicious), or she may have been attempting to relieve some tension in the room (a very legitimate possibility considering the current political tension). I do know it seems to have been perceived as malicious by the McCain family.
Where she’s wrong is with proximity. She’s not close to John McCain. In fact, her boss is rather estranged (as you may know John doesn’t want Donald at his funeral).
I know she issued an apology to John’s daughter Meghan, but as a public servant, there needs to be a public apology. Because it was made public. Because death and dying transcend political squabbles. Because death and dying are sanctified by love.
One. Nudist Funeral.
From an embalming perspective, laying out a nude nudist for a viewing would be difficult. Displaying a naked body for a viewing would mean that I’d have to hide all my sutures through some expert waxwork, and I’d have to make sure the embalming fluid was evenly distributed to stave off any odd discoloration. Generally, if an embalmer gets good distribution and an even color in the head and the hands, we’re good, because the head and the hands are the only parts of the skin visible for the viewing. Even in a thoroughly embalmed body, there might be some discoloration in the feet, or other parts of the body. But, it’d be a fun challenge and would demand that I’d do some of my best work.
Two. Trekkie Funeral
“Beam me six feet down, Scotty”
Three. A Furry Funeral
This would be the exact opposite of a nudist funeral because no skin would be showing if the deceased wanted to be embalmed. If the disposition was cremation, we’d get one of those Teddy Bear Urns.
Four. Cosplay Funeral
So many ideas! If the deceased wanted to be Wonder Woman, that whole even distribution thing would come into play. If the deceased wanted to be dressed as Nintendo’s Mario, it’d be easier. The casket could even be made to look like a Mario Cart. If I was working the funeral, I’d probably dress up as Gomez Addams or a suit-clad Dracula (“I vant to drain your blood!”).
Five. A Drag Funeral
I’d totally dress in drag for the funeral, but I’d probably go for a David Bowie gender blending look to maintain a level of distinction. Dressing a deceased person in drag would be beyond my capability. I’d find a friend of the deceased in the drag world to help with the dressing and makeup, but Lord knows I probably don’t have enough makeup in the prep room to pull it off.
Six. Juggalo Funeral
Nope. Wouldn’t do this one.
Seven. Steampunk Funeral
This would be so fun. The things you could do to a casket to make it steampunk. I’m getting excited just thinking about it. You could make a really elaborate locking system with a weighted lid so that you’d click a button and the lid would lower and lock in place. Click it again, and the lid would rise on its own. But, if you’d make something this awesome, it’d be really hard to bury it beneath the ground.
Of course, this steam powered hearse would be an absolute must.
Eight. Neo-Victorian Funeral
This would be boon for me because the Victorians were known for their absolutely lavish funerals. Sell alllll the copper caskets! Do you want two Prometheans? How about a vault made out of gold?
Nine. Bro Funeral
I’d mix a little “extra tan” dye in the embalming fluid to give the bro that sun-kissed look. I’d have the image of Ryan Lochte painted on the casket lid. The deceased would be dressed in Southern Tide flannel shirts, and John Mayer would be playing during the viewing. Once the bro slice would be buried, all his bros would pour beer on his grave while chanting his fraternity motto.
Ten. Bodybuilding Funeral
ADD SOME PROTEIN POWDER IN THE EMBALMING FLUID! Turn up the pressure on the embalming machine and get those arteries and veins distended. Turn on the workout music for the viewing. We’d only need one pallbearer who could deadlift the casket and snatch walk it all the way to the hearse. But really, who needs a hearse when you have men who could throw
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I motioned to where he should park his car in the funeral’s procession line. He threw it in park. Got out, straightened his tie, looked me in the eye and said, “I hate these thing.” I get told a variation of that line at least once a month. People don’t like funerals.
Here’s ten reasons why:
The Etiquette Questions.
Death is kind of like puberty. Sure, we know it’s coming. But no matter how much we’ve studied it in middle school and how much our parents have jokingly told us “it’s coming”, nothing can prepare us for the questions and awkwardness of it’s arrival.
And so when a funeral comes our way, so do a hundred questions:
Do I go to my co-worker’s mother’s funeral?
Do I bring my kids?
Do I send a card?
Can I pull out my phone and play Angry Birds during the funeral service?
WHERE IS THE FREAKIN RULE BOOK ON FUNERAL ETIQUETTE?
Death acts like a god. It doesn’t care about your schedule. It doesn’t care that you have a major interview for a new job, or that you’re on vacation. It does what it’s suppose to do whenever the hell it wants to do it.
And funerals are the same way. They’re scheduled at the weirdest times … like 11 AM on Tuesday morning, when you were supposed to have your much needed spa treatment. And right in the middle of the college football game that you really, really wanted to watch.
The dress code.
You open up your wardrobe and you see sweatpants, a really short sundress, a couple t-shirts and khakis. But churchy dress clothes? Who dresses like that anymore?
So you think to yourself: Should I go out and buy a suit? Or should I just go to a funeral in a dress shirt/sundress, tie and bluejeans? You don’t want to overdress (or you’ll look like the funeral director) and you don’t want to underdress ’cause that’s just disrespectful. You look through your closet a little more and there in the back is your old prom dress … and the thought crosses your mind … “nah.”
What to say when you’re in the viewing line.
You jump into the viewing line. And you see one of your friends a couple spots up. You’re uncomfortable. She’s uncomfortable. You start talking about things … anything but the obvious. Before you know it your forget you’re at a funeral and you start laughing about some random poop story she’s telling. Like hysterically laughing. Then you look up and the rest of the viewing line is throwing some heavy Michelle Obama shade right at you.
Oh Gawd. The body. The dead body. It’s a dead body. And I don’t even know this dead body. “I hate funerals”, you tell yourself.
Now that you’re right in front of the body you have this strange desire to touch it. You want to touch the hands, the face … something. And you remember, “It’s called a viewing … just look. It’s not called a touching.” So you keep your hands firmly planted at your side, hoping your hands don’t evolve a mind of their own and reach out and grab the deceased.
What to say to the family.
To Hug or Not to Hug
Maybe you know the son of the deceased … or maybe you just knew the deceased and not the rest of the family. But, there’s like 20 people in the receiving line … brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts. And you … you don’t know any of them.
Do I just hug everyone in the receiving line? Do I express my condolences to everyone; or do I just walk by and nod my head. And then there’s always that one person in the receiving line who likes to hug everyone that comes by. And when they do hug, it’s ten seconds too long and it’s sweaty and it’s weird.
So. Much. TOUCHING!
The Funeral Service.
The funniest things come to mind during a funeral. Really, they aren’t THAT funny, but because the funeral service is so solemn (and yes, at times boring), everything becomes sort of funny. So you bit your cheeks. Harder. It hurts now.
After the whole depressing, horrible thing is finished, you realize, “OMG, I’M GOING TO DIE.” One day that will be me and that will be MY funeral service. Up until that point, you thought you were immortal. And now … gawd I hate funerals.
Death’s taken some heat lately … he’s taken James Gandolfini. Paul Bearer. Tom Clancy. And let’s be honest, Death is due all the criticism he gets. But, Death isn’t really that bad of a guy. He’s just a normal dude with a difficult job.
As an effort to vault Death’s public perception, Death is looking to create a slogan that the world’s public will buy into. A slogan that will help change the world’s perceptions.
Here are 15 slogans. You’re the first test group, so feel free to criticize or change any of the slogan’s you see; or add any slogans you can create.
1. “10 out of 10 human’s are doing it!”
2. “It’s natural. It’s good for the environment. It’s green. It’s death.”
3. “I felt great when it happened to me.*” — Elvis Presley.
*Individual results may vary.
4. “Taking care of business since the beginning of time!”
5. “Death: It eases all your pain.”
6. “만나서 반갑습니다.*” — Kim Jong Il (right before he ordered Death to take him to his next kingdom.)
7. “Come on over to the light.”
8. “Death: I’m Your Heavenly chauffeur.*”
*Results may vary.
9. “If it wasn’t for Me, you’d never have bacon.”
10. “Be apart of something larger. Donate yourself back to the universe. Die.”
11. “10 out of 10 people who die lose weight.”
12. “Death: It will leave you breathless.”
13. “It really helped my political campaign.” — William Wallace.
14. “Without me, you’d still have Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden.”
15. “Death: Here for you in your darkest hour.”
Lend your creative genius to this effort and don’t let Death down … or he’ll let you down. Seriously, don’t make him
I’ve never heard of hazing practices in the funeral industry (although I’m sure it’s happened). And, thankfully, I’ve never been hazed. But if it was common place to haze interns, here’s what hazing might look like in the funeral industry:
1.) At 2 AM in the morning you call out Intern Johnny and say, “Johnny, there’s a call at ‘such and such’ address. Mr. Johnson has died.” If we’re hazing Johnny, it’s assumed that Mr. Johnson’s death is fictitious, but the address doesn’t have to be.
The possibilities are nearly endless:
Mr. Johnson’s house could be the funeral director’s ex-girlfriend/boyfriend’s house.
Johnny pulls up to ex-girlfriend’s house, rings doorbell and waits. Ex scrambles to get dressed, opens the door and reluctantly says, ‘Can I help you?”
Johnny: “I’m here to pick up Mr. Johnson.”
Johnny: “Mr. Johnson … a deceased family member of yours?”
Ex.: “I’m sorry, Mr. Johnson doesn’t live here … you have the wrong house.”
Or, if the funeral director isn’t so diabolical as to send intern Jimmy to his or her ex’s house, he could just send Jimmy to an abandoned house.
Or, Mr. Johnson’s house could be the funeral director’s friends house and your friend could pose as the dead guy, who is waiting to scare the living S*%# out of the intern. And this idea leads to the next hazing …
2.) You could lay in a body bag in the morgue awaiting said intern. From there, scare as you wish … preferably BEFORE said intern starts the embalming process.
3.) “You embalmed an alive body” is a pretty nasty thought; and an equally nasty hazing. Intern comes back from picking up a body at a nursing home (most nursing homes don’t have morgues … we literally take the body out of the bed … which can create confusion when there’s two or three or four people who sleep in same room). Intern embalms said body. Funeral director comes storming into the morgue, “Is that the body you just picked up from the nursing home?”
“Yes” says intern sheepishly.
“The nursing home just called and said they gave you the WRONG BODY!” says funeral director in mass hysteria. “The body on the OTHER SIDE OF THE ROOM was the one that was dead!!!”
“DID YOU EMBALM THE BODY!?!” says funeral director!
Intern’s face becomes ghostly pale and distorted.
“They said the body you picked up was JUST SLEEPING!” That person was alive!
“Quick, try CPR” says funeral director.
When CPR doesn’t work, the funeral director screams, “NOOOO!!! YOU KILLED THEM!”
“What?” says intern. “NOOOO!” says intern.
At this point the hazing begins to involve some sense of ethics. Does the funeral director push this hazing farther by suggesting that the intern must clean the morgue top to bottom so as to cover up said “killing” or does the funeral director stop the hazing and save the poor intern a heart attack?
4.) Or, the funeral director could just have the intern clean the morgue, pick up dead bodies in the middle of the night, yell at them all the time … oh, wait, that’s what happens anyways. And this is why there’s no rite of passage in the funeral business. There doesn’t need to be.