Putting the ‘fun’ in funerals; or perfect party planning for the nearly departed

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After spending recent weeks delving into serious, weighty topics like an existential door at Derryfield Park, pink margarine and Monday night shopping winners, I think it’s time for something lighter, more upbeat.

Let’s talk about death.

For instance, I may dress as a Samurai warrior for our Friday “Night at the Museums” costume party because if we don’t get about 300 people to attend, I may have to commit ritual Seppuku, and we certainly don’t want that to happen – at least I don’t – so please attend.

Click the picture for tickets.
Click the picture to reserve your tickets for Night at the Museums.

As a rule, I don’t discuss death very often. Before today, there are only two occasions I can recall. One time it involved a Halloween party in college where I shared large quantities of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill Wine with the lovely Helene Larochelle.

I went as Groucho Marx. She was a bag of jelly beans, and the next morning, as far as I was concerned, death couldn’t come soon enough.

Not that this is any reflection on Helene.

The only other time I have pondered death was when I walked into my first journalism class. For our first assignment, the professor told me to write an obituary. My obituary.

It was morbid.

It was macabre.

It was 18 pages long.

Yes, when my day comes, I may have to purchase a tabloid supplement if I want to get it published, but that’s not why I got into this subject. What prompted me to broach this most delicate topic is the recent outbreak of ”fun” funerals around the country.

Judy Sunday wanted her funeral at a bowling alley. Her family obliged. It was featured on TLC's 'Best Funeral Ever' reality show.
Judy Sunday wanted her funeral at a bowling alley. Her family obliged. It was featured on TLC’s ‘Best Funeral Ever’ reality TV show.

This is not a joke. In recent years, more and more people have been planning their own funerals. According to mortician Steve Skiles, who’s been doing these types of funerals for years, ”It’s a way of saying, ‘Hey world, I may be dead but I’m not gone.”’

Did I mention that Skiles lives in California? I’ll bet you figured that out on your own. Anyway, I’ve been keeping track of these fun funerals. Some of my favorites include:

* The woman in California who was buried with a portable television in her casket. She had it tuned to her favorite soap opera.

* The duck hunter from Iowa who was cremated, after which his friends put his ashes into shotgun shells and fired them into his favorite patch of woods.

* The bar owner in San Francisco who planned a post-mortem cruise for 100 of his friends. As his ashes were scattered in the bay, a jazz band played ”I’ll Be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places).”

* The woman in Michigan who was buried in a Detroit Tigers uniform. Her swan song was ”Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Maybe it’s because we’re a little more conservative here in Manchester, but a few years back, I conducted a quick, informal poll of my undertaker friends and there were very few requests from people who wanted to leave this mortal coil with party hats, confetti or stirrup socks.

”I’ve read about people who wanted to be buried in their Cadillacs, but nothing like that in this immediate area,” said Dan Healy from the Connor-Healy Funeral Home. ”If somebody came up with an odd request, we’d do our best to fulfill their last wishes but thankfully, it hasn’t come up yet.”

All aboard the SS Afterlife: Ad for a California ash scattering cruise.
All aboard the SS Afterlife: Ad for a California ash-scattering cruise.

”Those trends always start on the West Coast,” added Tom Janosz from the Cain-Janosz Funeral Home. ”Out there, a lot of funeral homes have their own boats for ‘scattering parties.’ They wine and dine you and take you out on the water to scatter Dad’s ashes, but that would be unheard of around here.”

What it all comes down to is death as a spectator sport. That’s why national columnist Michael Kinsley came up with the idea of a new cable station called the ”Funeral Channel.” After watching televised send-offs for Richard Nixon, Jackie Onassis and Rose Kennedy – all of which drew boffo ratings – he figured the kind of people who have ”fun” funerals would be dying (Har!) to have their parting parties broadcast over TFC or FTV or whatever else we might call it.

Maybe D-SPAN?

You can scoff if you like, but death has already found its niche in the local tourism industry. Author Mary Maynard convinced the people from Yankee magazine to produce a book called ”Dead and Buried in New England” which describes 306 prominent grave sites in the region. (Manchester’s top entry is Gen. John Stark, but actor Claude Rains – he’s better known as Captain Reneault in ”Casablanca” – is buried in Moultonborough).

Here in Manchester, we have at least 17 graveyards and each one has a little tourist allure to it. Tiny little Merrill’s Graveyard is where Commodore Nutt is buried, and wouldn’t you love to bring political visitors to Pine Grove Cemetery and show them where Mayor Harry Spaulding was actually arrested for embezzlement during his wife’s funeral in 1930?

Oct. 17 Valley Street Cemetery tour was well attended.
Oct. 17 Valley Street Cemetery tour was well attended.

Of course, thanks to the Manchester Historic Association, the venerable Valley Street Cemetery has been turned into a major tourist magnet. Just last week, historians John Jordan and Dick Duckoff led a troupe of 56 visitors through the garden-style cemetery.

In addition to the burial plots of well-known movers and shakers – Samuel Blodget, Moody Currier, Ezekiel Straw – there are fascinating sub-plots among the great unwashed. My favorite is Abby Sage McFarland Richardson, a local actress who made it all the way to Broadway, only to have her ex-husband start a national scandal by murdering her boyfriend in the office of New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley.

Naturally, you won’t find that on her headstone. Truth is, gravestones at the Valley Street Cemetery are blissfully free of cutesy slogans like: ”Here lies the bones of my former honey; He thought the mushrooms tasted funny.” But at least the people who are buried in the Valley Street Cemetery get to rest in peace. The same cannot be said for other famous dead people.

In recent years, scientists have conducted posthumous autopsies – I don’t think there’s any other kind – on deceased celebrities like Edgar Allen Poe. They also tried to dig up some dirt (sorry) on John Wilkes Booth. It seems there were grave doubts (sorry) about who was actually in his coffin, but a judge wouldn’t allow his body to be exhumed.

Jesse James wasn’t so lucky. The famous outlaw was unearthed back in 1995. He spent three months looking at the grass from the other side before they got around to reburying him.

If this exhumation trend continues, I see another new market developing, one we could advertise heavily on D-SPAN or in actual magazines like ”Mortuary Management.” What I envision is a market for caskets made of Tupperware.

Hey, if they’re going to be digging me up in a hundred years or so, I want to be assured of maximum freshness.

John Clayton


John Clayton is Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. You can reach him with your historical (or existential) questions at jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org.



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About Carol Robidoux 5815 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.