Funerals and laughter

I attended Uncle Mayhem‘s funeral about three weeks ago. At my aunt’s house before we went to the church, I’d been there about ten minutes before I noticed Kiddo1 looking shocked. I pulled him aside and said, “This is how Italian funerals work. We laugh.”

There’s the initial greeting, of course, the condolences and the comfort. And then within five minutes, you have the first outrageous story involving the deceased, and after that you’re pretty much off to the races. That’s how it is in my family, and because that’s all I ever knew, I’d assumed that’s just how funerals go.

Kiddo1, who assumed for some reason that a funeral would be filled with sad, crying people, had no idea what to make of the dissonance. But in my family, that’s how we mourn. We share. We laugh together. If we can laugh at something, we can make it through.

My father tells me Irish funerals are the same. My Patient Husband, on the other hand, says no, in his family that kind of thing never happens.

“Your relatives are more colorful,” he says. “There aren’t family tall tales like that.”

I said, “Come on,” and told a story about Uncle Mayhem and my grandfather that involved unpasteurized milk and a real-life dose of farm animals. “No,” my Patient Husband said. “My mother would be mortified if someone told a story like that about her at her wake, something crazy and a little embarrassing.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t thought about that story as even remotely embarrassing. Uncle Mayhem was on the receiving end of the laughter, but if he’d been there, he’d have taken over telling the story from my aunt and probably hammed it up even more. Embarrassed? No, he’d have laughed loudly and probably slapped the table and then followed it up with an even funnier story.

Well, that’s what I want. If I show up in ghostly form at my own wake, I want to hear laughter. I want to hear funny stories spanning back decades, key moments that exemplify what we all loved about each other, maybe a little exaggeration here and there, but overall a sense that we all truly lived our lives as who we are.

No punches pulled, no pretending I lived a life of dignity and reservation. Life is story. So talk about the time I went all New-Yorker on that employee who mistreated my kid or how I turned in the gas station manager engaged in insurance fraud. Laugh about the time I bit into kim chee without knowing what it was and saw actual sparks. 

If I were there, I’d be laughing right along with you. I’d probably tell you some detail you forgot, and that would lead to another story still. 



  1. Jen

    Polish funerals too. Laughing and reminiscing helped the time at my mom’s wake (and reception) pass well. Some tears to be sure, but more smiles. I’m sure she was pleased, since she always told the story of my baby sister letting out with a big, fat belch at my dad’s funeral. 🙂

  2. Jude Knight

    Lots of laughter, lots of tears. We celebrate their lives when we laugh – with, for and even at them. We ease our own hearts at the same time, and we remind ourselves that – though they are gone – they will always be with us in the story about how he told his sister that the possum wouldn’t hurt her if she held it by the tale, or how she used to get out of doing chores by claiming she had school work, but would be reading a novel with her exercise ready to move into position if anyone checked, or a 1000 other stories I’ve heard at funerals of my loved aunts and uncles.

  3. Jessica White

    That is interesting. Here in the southern bible belt we tend to have fun at someone’s expense at family reunions, then sober funerals with a good reception afterward where the food tends to make people share sentimental stories. But this is certainly something I never thought about as a writer.

  4. DeAnna

    I adore that – I hope people find reasons to laugh and remember me fondly when I am gone. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Ken Rolph

    I wonder if this is to do wit large versus small families. Or clans, really. My own Australian family has a mongrel background, sourced from various parts of the world by people born in the late 1700s. In the mid-twentieth century we all lived within a few close suburbs. We would have events (funerals, wedding, parties) with 80 to 100 just relatives. They had everything — tears, laughter, storytelling. Lots of stories, mostly funny. It resulted in a warm comforting feeling, even at funerals. There were family stories that were told and retold. They could even be told in detail by family members who were not anywhere near the original incident. I remember one funeral of an uncle when one of the younger cousins had gone into labour early that morning. The baby was born during the funeral service, although we didn’t know until later that day. Back at the house there were a lot of people saying, “One goes, one comes”. Somehow being part of a large clan cushions you from the losses. I have 3 dozen cousins. We look forward to family events, even funerals, as a way of maintaining the connections we had in childhood.

  6. seschoen

    Our family reunions started at a funeral. The cousins realized they only gathered at funerals, yet when they were younger they were together often. Fortunately, the then-current matriarch’s 80th birthday was next summer, so they had even more incentive.

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