The last laugh... Why we love black humour

It seems an odd mix, but there is a long tradition of jocularity that can accompany the death of a loved one, says Dr Kevin Myers, Research Supervisor Lead at Hibernia College in Dublin
The last laugh... Why we love black humour

LOOKING ON THE BRIGHTSIDE OF LIFE: Mourners smile at the funeral of Shay Bradley as his pre-recorded voice emanates from the grave.

EARLIER this month, the burial service of Shay Bradley, a Dublin native and member of the Irish Defence Forces, drew national and international media attention alike.

During the burial, the gathered mourners were hailed by a call from the grave. There were no disgruntled spirts here, but rather a pre-recorded message composed by Mr Bradley, pondering loudly about his situation and his seemingly odd whereabouts.

His chants drew laughter from those in attendance, offering them a type of comic relief in the face of one of life’s great challenges, the funeral burial of a loved one.

This use of humour in facing death is not a new phenomenon. We Irish have been doing it for centuries. O’Suilleabhain, a celebrated Irish folklorist, talks of the Merry Wake, a boisterous affair where those gathered often played ‘wake games’, where practical jokes were on full display for mourners.

One story tells of a secluded piece of rope tied around the torso of the deceased. In time the rope was pulled upon by the pranksters, giving those gathered the unsettled impression that the deceased had risen-up from his coffin and slumber.

It is true to say that this use of humour in facing death is by no means uniquely Irish. Voltaire, an 18th-century French historian and philosopher, was approached by a priest on his deathbed. The clergymen challenged him to renounce the Devil and all his evil works. With a sense of macabre wit, Voltaire refused his request, replying: “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

In contemporary life, the treatment of cremated remains has added to post-death jocularity. Consider the case of Carrie Fisher, best known to many as Princess Leia from the Star Wars franchise, who died in 2016. Fisher’s battle with mental health had been well-documented in the media. After her death and subsequent cremation, Fisher insisted that her cremated remains would find rest in an urn shaped as a Prozac pill. This request, as Kübler-Ross may have put it, allowed Fisher ‘to die in character’, as woman who met the challenge of a bio-polar diagnosis for much of her life.

Humour and How the Irish talk

Yet how do the Irish talk of death and where does the role of humour take shape? In large parts, we Irish are masterful comedians. Popular opinion would have us believe the Irish have a quick wit, one tied to the culture of light-heartedness, with often joyful approaches to some of the challenges of life.

However, our conversational norms are sign- posted by some unwritten rules, particularly in relation to our accomplishments and successes. As Professor Tom Inglis reminds us, we Irish have a slight tendency to undermine, and belittle the achievements of others, particularly those who loudly announce their successes in life. In doing so, we at times seek to slightly undermine and deflect the extent of the success of our peers.

But how do we get around this? If we know our achievements may draw a sense of comedic ire, what can we do to avoid it? The trick is to self-deprecate, to minimise our achievements publicly in order to avoid the playful mockery of others. Self-deprecation, then is, as Inglis puts it “… not just a character trait among the Irish, it is a cultural tactic”. He moves on to say: “Irish love to hear the high and mighty tell self-deprecating stories about themselves … They love to hear stories about their heroes being ordinary guys, just like you and me”.

Here, the self-deprecated self deflects criticism and adds an endearing element to their potential dynamic personality. While this is on best display in relation to life, it is also a powerful tool used in our discussions of death. Consider the Humanist funeral service of Mary Raftery in 2012. At her service, her husband delivered her eulogy. He spoke of her many accomplishment’s and laudable achievements. However, he insisted that the congregation be alerted to her various flaws.

This was to add balance, of course. He spoke of Mary’s culinary shortcomings, that she had even “burnt a boiled egg”.

This playful reflection of Mary’s minor shortcomings was received in kind, as endearing, light-hearted character traits of a fine Irish citizen.

Personalised Technology, Self-Depreciation and Comic Relief

While the Irish use of humour in the face of death has a long tradition, the means by which we speak of the humorous traits of the departed has changed considerably.

The development of communication platforms and technologies, such as social media, has allowed for much greater degree of personalisation in life. So too has it done so in death. In this regard, Shay’s call from the grave forms part of a much wider cultural trend, one happening with particular expedience within the Irish Republic, not to mention with our neighbours in the United Kingdom.

While the UK funeral service industry is greatly diversified, there is evidence that the Irish are beginning to follow suit. Mourners in both countries often call on the use of humour and comic relief at funerals and burials.

In the UK, funeral industries offer mourners the option of hiring funeral clowns and selecting personalised coffins. One such example relates to family request of a Twix-decorated coffin, reflecting the deceased’s favourite chocolate treat. The theme here, of course, is rather inventive, colourfully framing the loss as ‘death by chocolate’.

Going further, many services now offer people the opportunity to rework cremated remains into a myriad of objects and shapes, allowing mourners to treat the ashes of their deceased according to their wishes. Some have chosen to place the ashes of their loved one into a purpose-built firework, allowing their dead “to go out with a bang”.

What seems true, however, is this. Each one of us was born into a world we never asked to enter. Most of us will leave it without our consent. What we can control, however, is the means by which we can write our own end-of-life or post-death chapter, to choose what happens to our remains once we have left life’s stage. Many will leave our loved ones with a tear, but as is the case with Shay, others will leave them with a smile.

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