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Regarding funerals: thinking out of the box

Is there beer after life?
Is there beer after life?
Percy McRay, via Reuters

What if you didn’t have to take your death lying down?

A story in the New York Times last Sunday reported on the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in New Orleans, which has held two services with the main attraction, the deceased, posed as if still living. At a June 12 service for Miriam Burbank, 53, the honoree knocked ‘em dead while seated at a table with a can of beer and a smoke, “just as she had spent a good number of her living days,” as the article put it.

Such viewings have taken place in Puerto Rico since 2008. The first involved a 24-year-old murder victim, Angel Luis Pantojas, whose body was tethered to a wall in his family’s living room. The event was dubbed muerto parao – “dead man standing.” Subsequent ones featured a former boxer standing in a ring, an old woman in a rocking chair, a paramedic at the wheel of an ambulance, and a man dressed like Che Guevara, cigar in hand, seated Indian-style. All of them were arranged by the same funeral home in San Juan.

Said Elsie Rodríguez, the establishment’s vice president: “The family (gets to) see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy — they see them in a way in which they still look alive.”

In “My Struggle,” Karl Knausgaard’s monumental, multi-volume account of his life, the author describes the experience of seeing his dad laid out on a table prior to his funeral, in 1998. “The idea that I could scrutinize this face unhindered for the first time was almost unbearable. It felt like an act of violation…The woodenness forbade any feelings of intimacy. I was no longer looking at a person but something that resembled a person.”

I well recall my selfsame emotions upon seeing, some fifteen years ago, a friend in his coffin, his face like a mask made of wax. He was no longer the always grinning, always jabbering life force he’d been, but was now like something carved out of wood, deeply unsettling to look at.

The Times story reported that the funeral home in San Juan has had to refuse a few requests it found distasteful, and that it would not grant those that were too far out of the box, so to speak. Ms. Rodriguez said they would not consider holding a wake with someone in a swimsuit, for example.

Why not? My bet is that a good many people anywhere would die for the opportunity to make a good last impression – and after all, it’s their funeral. Anyway, who says that funeral homes have to be so…well, funereal? Would a Leave ‘em Laughing wing detract from the solemn dignity of your average funeral parlor? No doubt about it – but then again, people might actually enjoy going there. And when’s the last time you heard anyone say about a funeral: A good time was had by all.

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