Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors’ Manager, Abi Pattenden, asks why funerals are often a feature in film and TV comedies as well as in drama.
At Freeman Brothers, we like to consider all kinds of issues concerned with death, funerals, and bereavement, and how they are presented in popular culture. In the office, we started thinking of how many times we see funerals featured in comedy, and this prompted me to consider why funerals might be depicted as funny, because of course, often they are just the opposite. Here are some of my thoughts.
Funerals can affect any character. A key feature of comedy is finding ways to put unlikely combinations of people together (this is why workplaces are such a popular setting for them). Funerals, perhaps more so than any other life event, are often seen as ‘must attend’ and so are a great device for putting the lead character(s) into a situation where they come across all sorts of people. And, because a funeral can be for anyone, they are a great way to do this without having to ‘kill off’ an existing character, or introduce someone only to have them die. It’s not infeasible that our heroine can need to go back to her hometown for the funeral of an elderly aunt who has never been mentioned previously, for example.
Inappropriate behaviour is funny. A key bastion of comedy is in laughing at people acting in ways that others in the scene feel is inappropriate. Funerals are a rich vein for this as the possible prevailing customs (religious, traditional, cultural) can be complex, but also taken for granted by those who are used to them. Equally, what is inappropriate can vary wildly purely depending on how the funeral is depicted: a character known for drunkenness might find kindred spirits at the reception and that’s funny; so is them imbibing too much in front of straight-laced family enjoying tea and scones, albeit in a different kind of way.
Things being serious is sometimes funny. We all know people whose first response at any times of stress or pressure is to laugh. Solemnity can seem pompous in the wrong hands (why is why being involved in funeral service can be such a difficult job) and some types of humour depend on bursting the balloon of a too-formal situation. Added to the above point, the incongruity of a character not taking a serious situation seriously can be funny- perhaps especially so if he or she is a person who is desperate to behave in the ‘right’ way.
What’s interesting about funerals in comedies is how often something goes wrong. Any number of films and TV shows have coffins being dropped or falling out of the rear of hearses, vehicles crashing, or attendees becoming unwell- and these events, if not actually depicted, are often reported by characters who have attended funerals within the narrative. Of course, if we don’t see this event occurring, we don’t know if it has actually happened, but we know that the character concerned thinks that saying it is going to cause some kind of reaction. Why is this? After all, in the fifteen years I have worked at Freeman Brothers, we have probably carried out over ten thousand funerals and I have never known a coffin to be dropped. Perhaps this is why- one of the funniest things that can happen is something which we know is unlikely. A non-realistic occurrence depicted in a realistic event is often amusing, and so perhaps the comedic idea the funerals are always going wrong is a lesson in the absurd- they are portrayed this way not because it does happen in real life, but because it doesn’t.