Death is the sting. Humour is the ointment
17 March, 2011
I’m writing an abstract for consideration by Winchester Death Day. I am proposing to speak for 20 minutes on the subject of ‘Death and Humour’.
My argument is that although you can view the human condition as tragic: we are born and we all must expire at a time not of our own choosing, humour is a way of coping with the shock and complex feelings we experience when someone dies.
I’ve had two jobs which involved dealing with the bereaved. When I worked on the Guardian Obituary column, there were loads of jokes. We had a list of people who were ‘on the way out’ or ‘nearly dead’. The obituary editor would get tip offs as to who might be gravely ill. Everything was stored away in files we called, ‘The Morgue’. There were some great apocryphal stories, as when someone called up to say that their photo had appeared on the page by mistake. Quick as a flash, the secretary on the desk said, “And where are you calling from?”.
The Telegraph had a tradition of writing outrageously funny obituaries. Some people probably found them irreverent, but I wonder if the most appropriate emotion to feel about a life well-lived is joy, and the Telegraph obituaries were a joy to read.
My other work with the bereaved is writing eulogies. There is a temptation to go over the top praising the virtues of the deceased. This has the effect of making the living feel uncomfortable; it’s hardly the time to employ the trite hyperbole of the CV. To pay proper tribute to the dead person, we should tell the truth in a gentle and fair way, and even give a flavour of their faults as well as their strengths. Paradoxically, we sometimes love our fellow human beings more for their faults than their virtues.
There is a brilliant story of the rabbi who came to the point in the service when he was supposed to extol the virtues of the loved one. He says, “I did not know this man I’m new here. You all knew him. You say something good about him.” Silence goes on for a minute, two minutes, finally a voice from the back, “His brother was worse”.