Is There Anything Funny about Death? 24 Writers Say Absolutely!
During the eighteen months before my mother's death, I remained at her side. We had a complicated relationship—true of so many mothers and daughters—and she didn't appreciate my daily reminders regarding her medications, her need to walk, the importance of eating. Mom was a visual artist, ardent reader, and political junkie; she didn't go in for idle chatter. As for sharing thoughts or feelings about her illness? Forget it.
One day, however, the window of opportunity blew open. "When I'm ready," said Mom, "take me to Alaska and put me on an ice floe, where I can float away and die." I looked at her for a moment. Was she being funny? I took the chance that she was, and jumped in. "Sounds good, but with global warming, there may not be any ice left." She sighed loudly, and then a little twinkle came to her eyes. "In that case, hold my head underwater until I drown!" We giggled...and then we laughed. That's when I understood how the pain of death, of facing our own death or that of someone we love, can be softened by humor.
EXIT LAUGHING: How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death has just been published. It's an anthology I edited of twenty-four authors sharing their personal stories about death from various poignant, and sometimes hilarious perspectives. After Jacquelyn Mitchard's husband's wake, three of his best friends went to the roof of the nearby mental hospital—where one of the men was the director—to watch a storm roll in. Their wallets were in the car, and they had no way to prove their identities as they attempted to leave. Security held them in lock-up most of the night. Ellen Sussman writes about how she flew her mother's body home for the funeral, and the burial outfit fell out of the suitcase and arrived on the baggage turnstile, one frilly undergarment at a time. Malachy McCourt tells us what really happened to Angela's ashes!
When I first thought of this book, I wondered if anyone would be willing to write about the relationship between humor and death. As it happened, nearly everyone I contacted jumped at the opportunity, many authors admitting that they'd experienced all sorts of humorous responses to death but had been reluctant to write about it. But, oh, did they write!
Carrie Kabak's Caraway Seed Cake repeats her grandmother's memory of an Irish wake:
Father Hegarty himself, who was well oiled by now, was spinning in circles like a whirling dervish...And Alice took it upon herself to holler with joy, for the bastard was dead! And when the last nail was driven home, Alice called for the Mullans to play a reel, and lines formed, and hands clapped, and an arch of arms spread well into the yard. Alice skipped down the middle, and she twisted and kicked, keeping with the rhythm, and the pattern of beats, and in perfect time with those close behind her. It’s not right, Old Mary Godfrey muttered. It’s just not right. First the priest, and now the wife. Dear Mother of God, what is the world coming to? And Alice flung back her head, and laughed, showing an arc of white teeth. She’ll be dancing on his grave tomorrow, sneered Old Mary Godfrey.
Christina O'Hagan reminds us that death and humor may be strange bedfellows, yet they co-exist for a reason. A scene with her mother-in-law:
One afternoon, when Patrick went off to look for the doctor, I took matters into my own hands, so to speak. Standing by the side of the bed, I rubbed her arm. She had been a good mother-in-law to me and I loved her. “It’s okay to let go,” I told her, “we’ll be okay. Just go to the light.” At that moment, her eyelids flew open and she looked at me with something like shock, and for a minute I felt like a Judas. (True, I’d always had my eye on her Depression-era, cranberry-glass candy dish, but I could wait.) “What light?” she asked me. “I’m going to Atlantic City!”
When my agent sent out my proposal, we quickly discovered that publishers were reluctant to buy the book. I can't help wondering if this was related to the makeup of editorial boards: young adults far too young to consider the subject of death, much less find humor in it. I could be wrong. I am deeply grateful to North Atlantic Books for their leap of faith.
Which brings me to what I consider the crux of my message. You might want to know what it takes to get published, how much talent is required, which contacts you need to make it in the publishing business. Words like drive, tenacity, or being an expert on a timely subject pop into my head. And all of that counts, sure, but the #1 word on my list might surprise you. For me, it's all about RISK.
Do you have an idea, but you're not sure it'll fly, so you put it aside until "that day" when it makes sense, has a chance, ad nauseam? Nonsense! If you have an idea, run with it, take the risk. What if you fail? Forgive me if I sound like some televangelist, but your only failure is Not Trying. If you try and nothing happens, big deal! I come up with new ideas all the time, and many of them end up in the trash. But the ones that work? Heaven. And think of this: if you don't try, you get to live with that queasy feeling that you didn't take the risk. Of course, there's the ultimate reason to take the risk. When you're (very) old and (peacefully) dying, you can look back with a sense of satisfaction...and even humor...knowing that you tried it all.