Recently, I spoke to a branch of the Ontario Funeral Service Association, and in the audience was the ever-smiling face of a casket salesman, my old friend – wait for it – Bill Sleep. I’m not making this up. The group coordinator, nicknamed “Digger,” asked me if it would be all right if they got the business segment out of the way before I spoke. I agreed.
I’m not sure if you do any public speaking, but usually it’s a good idea to keep things light, entertaining and funny, if possible.
I’m not accustomed to having somebody warm up the crowd for me, so you can imagine my surprise when four gentlemen stood up and briefed the audience on the latest mock-disaster exercises (they went well), new and innovative coffins (they go down well) and the latest in graveyard hydraulics (you go down well). Essentially, they touched on every aspect of death, destruction and near-annihilation, all of which – if I heard right – are going very, very well. Not a real “feel good” warm-up act.
By the time I addressed the group, my first duties were to get two ladies in the front row to stop crying, and physically remove measuring tapes from two competing morticians who were stalking a waiter with a bad cough.
It was the most interesting situation I’ve ever encountered as a speaker. So much so that I gave the four gentlemen who preceded me a list of my upcoming engagements in hopes that somehow they could arrange to be in another country on those dates.
Do not think for a moment, however, that people in the funeral business do not have a good sense of humour. Far from it. In fact, I did a little research into the subject and was able to find some of the lighter moments of the business of darkness. Like actual epitaphs, carved in stone by their colleagues.
From a cemetery in Innisburg Falls, Vermont: “Here lies the body of my daughter Anna, Done to death by a banana. It was not the fruit of the thing laid her low, But the skin of that thing that made her go.”
On the headstone of a Canadian atheist: “Gone to see for myself.”
One epitaph that many of us might laugh a little too hard at: “View this dreary spot with gravity. A dentist is filling his last cavity.”
On the memorial of a man bitter to the end: “Talked to death by friends.”
I am assured by Father William Parker Neal, who lives in Gettysburg and has written a book on epitaphs, that there is a tombstone in his own hometown that reads: “Here lies the body of my daughter Charlotte. Born a virgin, died a harlot. For 16 years she kept her virginity, Which is quite a record in this vicinity.”
And two warnings by women about their own funeral arrangements:
Said one: “There will be no male pallbearers. Since they wouldn’t take me out when I was alive, I don’t want them to take me out when I’m dead.”
Said the other: “Please don’t let them put ‘Miss’ on my tombstone. I haven’t missed as much as they think.”
But, it is most definitely not the morticians who reveal the funny side of the funeral industry. It’s the people like you – under the great stress of a loved one lost, yet exuberant in the appreciation of those who have helped you through it. The best, albeit unintended, humour in the death business lies in the thank you notes people send to the managers of funeral homes.
“I wish to thank everyone who kindly assisted in the death of my husband.”
“Thank you for providing the pallbearers for Mom. She always loved to have men help her.”
“Thank you for helping cremate my Father. It was a pleasure.”
“When you returned Mother’s clothes, the shoes were not hers, but they fit me. Thanks again.”
“Thank you for talking me out of burying my husband at sea. Now I can visit his grave. You see, I can’t swim.”
“Thank you for Mother’s beautiful funeral service. She was a saint and a virgin if there ever was one.”
“Thank you for conducting such a lovely service for my Father. The guy who did the flowers was a little too happy, if you know what I mean. But everything worked out okay.”
Said one woman to a funeral director: “Boy, I’ve been trying to settle this estate for nearly a year now. There are some days I wish Harry had never fallen off that ladder!”
You might as well laugh. As Red Skelton has so often said, “Nobody’s getting out of this one alive.”
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