The Dead Can Be The Life Of The Party

The Free Press    June 5, 2008

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and let's boogie. Your best party might be the one you can't be there to enjoy.

Most people just have the wrong attitude about funerals. The traditional service is in a mortuary, or house of worship, with the dearly departed front and center, predictably prone in the casket. A few speeches, a catharsis of tears, and its off to the cemetery. The routine rarely changes. We are much more alike in death than we were in life.

But some people make a real effort to posthumously celebrate the life rather than mourn the death. Friends of a champion Irish clay pigeon shooter have fulfilled his dying wish by packing his ashes into shotgun cartridges and blasting his remains over firing ranges around the world. Ted Geisel - Dr. Seuss - wanted a New Orleans funeral when he passed On Beyond Zebra. Perhaps you saw the video of his widow, dancing on top of the hearse, with a jazz band swinging in the background. Just the zany way he would have wanted.

Ditto for famed chef Austin Leslie, who was rescued from his New Orleans home two days after Hurricane Katrina. Though he was eventually reunited with his family in Atlanta, he became ill, and died at 71. But he had a planned dessert for his epicurean life. As mourners filed out of the church in downtown Atlanta, they found that Leslie's home city tradition had been transplanted with him. Led by a six-piece brass band from The Big Easy, everyone high-stepped it down the street to, of course, When The Saints Come Marching In. Tourists excitedly pointed video cameras and cell phones to record the moment.

When San Francisco bar owner Jack Smith learned that he had terminal cancer, he planned a yacht cruise for 100 friends, set to sail the Saturday after his death. He delivered invitations saying, "I'm having a party. I just don't have the date yet." The cruise featured a jazz band and a blues group, and the deceased's ashes were spread to the playing of I'll Be Seeing You.

B.T. Collins was a California state legislator, and former Green Beret, who lost an arm and a leg in Vietnam. He was fond of the unconventional, once donating a urinal to his law school alma mater. When he died of a heart attack at 52, more than 3000 mourners gathered in a hotel ballroom to revel amidst a balloon-bedecked buffet, dripping ice sculptures, and a trio of bars. A seven-piece band, led by a vocalist in a black lace dress, blared out James Brown's I Feel Good. In the midst of the action was the party's host - lying in his flag-draped coffin.

A west coast company combines death-theme art with an array of caskets and urns that traditionalists wouldn't be caught dead in. A huge chrome rhino's head with a hollow horn for a loved one's cremated remains. An urn made out of an old liquor cabinet that plays How Dry I Am when opened. Jewelry that allows survivors to wear a bit of the deceased around the neck. And a blinking three-foot-high robotic sculpture with a comically tiny light-bulb head, and a concealed container for ashes.

Strippers at funerals in east China's Jiangsu Province (far from the recent earthquake devastation) have led to a crackdown on the practice, which is intended to attract crowds of mourners. The lovely ladies were once a common sight at funerals, as local villagers believed more mourners increased the honor of the deceased. Better-off families even hired two troupes to compete in a strip-off. But after five striptease troupe bosses were arrested for "obscene performances", local police issued notices banning stripping at funerals, and gave a hotline number for people to report "funeral misdeeds" for a $50 reward.

Then there are die-hard sports fans: Connie Scramlin arranged to be buried in a Detroit Tigers baseball uniform, and a coffin with the team's orange, blue, and white colors. Music - Take Me Out to the Ballgame, of course. And Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith assured himself a place in the Funeral Hall of Fame by planning one that people will talk about for years:

The mortuary built a small stage, and on it they placed the furniture from Smith's den. There was James, in his recliner, feet crossed and the remote in his hand. He was dressed in his traditional Sunday uniform of Steelers' black-and-gold silk pajamas, a robe, and slippers. By his side was a pack of cigarettes and a beer. The high-definition TV played a tape of his home team's highlights. Smith's final statement, a party atmosphere, is one that everyone will remember. It wasn't profound, and it wasn't poetic. But it was the quintessential James Henry Smith.

Maybe these party animals are really onto something. We already support a whole industry of event planners - for meetings, engagements, birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs, confirmations, communions, sweet sixteens. Why not funerals? A personalized, dramatized farewell, properly memorializing the life of the honoree. Think outside the coffin. Going In Style With A Smile.

President Bush could be placed at a photo-op, grinning and waving, oblivious as usual to the groundswell of public anger over an unpopular war, unpopular social security changes, unpopular gas prices, unpopular Katrina relief bungles, unpopular domestic spying, unpopular record spending and deficits, and plummeting approval ratings. No need for burial plans - he has already buried himself. And if his gravesite is anything like the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no one will ever find him.

Me, I want to be seated at my computer, typing an Open Records Request. Music can include Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide, and Don Henley's classic about TV news, Dirty Laundry. Former borough council members, unsuccessful local political candidates, some QCSD directors, and a certain ex-borough manager, will be the perfect pallbearers. They will be thrilled to bury me.