Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Humor...At A Funeral?

It is rather unorthodox to think of humor in the context of a funeral; such a somber event, in American tradition, at least, should create only sadness and seriousness. However, I remember a few rather amusing points from my maternal grandfather’s funeral several years ago, although the laughter was not as unfeeling as it may sound. My Grandpap passed away when I was in fifth grade, and my family and I took the trip down to Altoona, Pennsylvania for his funeral along with my mom’s six brothers and sisters. The death of this lively, 68-year-young man was upsetting to all of us, and at first it was the somber funeral as always. My father, Grandpap’s son-in-law, gave the eulogy, however, which was surprisingly funny. He told a story of my grandfather’s sense of humor, the thing for which he should be remembered. According to the story, Grandpap got together one day with two friends who did not know each other. Before he introduced the two men, he told each that the other was hard at hearing, and when they met he sat back and laughed to himself as the two men shouted to each other during their entire conversation. I found myself laughing out loud at this story. Later, since the funeral was in a Ukrainian Orthodox church, we found that the Eucharist was not the wafers most of us were used to but rather spongy Eucharistic squares soaked in wine. My mother and I began laughing at the unexpected taste from the Eucharist, and we laughed even harder when the men from the Asian restaurant at which my grandfather worked began looking for somewhere to spit the bitter Eucharist. It was amazing how much the laughter alleviated the sadness of the funeral. Being around such a lively family, one just as lively as my grandfather, allowed a great deal of relief and even comedy.

I was reminded of this situation as I was reading Douglas’s “Jokes.” Douglas explores humor in a number of cultures. When discussing the joker, he mentions a central African tradition of a joker at a funeral. According to this tradition, the “joking partner is a friend cultivated by gifts and hospitality, and is by definition not a close kinsman: his role at a funeral is to cheer the bereaved and to relieve them of the polluting duties of burial” (160). In many ways, my father, as the eulogist, was this “joking partner.” He was not a direct relative of my grandfather, but rather connected through marriage. Although he was personally affected by the death, he was not as much as the brothers, sisters, and children. He provided comic relief for these family members, recalling not the sentimental, sad moments of my grandfather’s life but rather the funny ones; he recalled events that even in their retelling will make the listener laugh. His eulogy did in fact relieve some of the “polluting duties of burial” (160). Victor Turner talks about the clown as having immunity. While my father was not necessarily “the clown,” he had the liberty to joke and gather laughter from his position.

The moment with the Eucharist reminded me in some ways of Lawrence Millman’s story “Embarkation.” The comedy in this story came from a distinction in cultures and traditions. Although my grandfather was Ukrainian, none of us were used to the different traditions of the Ukrainian Orthodox church. The shock we all received upon receiving the Eucharist was almost like the splinter that Gudmundur gives to the narrator. We respect what others find sacred even though we might not completely understand those things. We can relate the splinter to “the fingernail of a said…once seen resting in an aspirin bottle in Ravenna, Italy” (4), or the soggy square to the body of Christ we are familiar with, even if we also find humor in this relation.

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