There were wigs, beads, feather boas, and tutus. And a lot of tears.
My best friend, Shoshana, left this earth just after her 40th birthday. She did it in style, though, giving us clear instructions on how to throw her a kickass end-of-life celebration. The eulogies were short; the music soothing. She even supplied a tub of costumes for guests who showed up in traditionally drab funeral attire. After the service, we filed into the parking lot, where a klezmer band greeted us, and danced the horah around her casket before lowering it into the ground. We — family and friends dating back to preschool — circled her lifeless body in a swarm of tears and laughter, like a misplaced Mardi Gras troupe.
Shoshana’s death pummeled me with grief. But, I have to admit, her funeral was a lot of fun.
Not to brag or anything, but I’ve been to at least two dozen funerals, starting with my dad’s when I was 11. Since then, I’ve buried four aunts, three uncles, a stepdad, neighbors, colleagues, and cousins. I probably hit peak misery at age 30, when my mom exhaled for the last time after promising me she was just a little under the weather.
I don’t remember a heck of a lot about those funerals, besides the smell of stale coffee and the urge to flee. I know my mom’s involved a violinist who made even his instrument cry. But Shoshana’s death and her ensuing “after-party” were completely different. We took photographs by the water and quoted our high school plays. We laughed and sobbed and laughed again. I was so grateful for Shoshana’s guidance, even posthumously. Of course she told us to dress up and dance. That was how Shoshana lived her life — creating wild joy.
After friends started sharing pictures of Shoshana’s fete, I grew fascinated with the idea of “fun funerals.” I started researching the way other people, across different cultures, commemorate someone’s passing. I found amazing footage of funeral strippers in Taiwan and funeral clowns in Ireland. And closer to home, I found an exquisite water ballet staged by a young artist, to be performed after her death in a public wading pool.
I also came across alternatives to a traditional burial. Hunter S. Thompson, for example, requested to have his ashes shot into the sky with fireworks. And Tupac Shakur told his friends to smoke his remains. I discovered less extravagant options, too, such as ash jewelry and DIY casket kits.
“Obviously there are some people who hate the idea of a fun funeral,” said Kyle Tevlin, founder of the funeral-planning enterprise, IWantAFunFuneral.com. Tevlin teaches a popular webinar about preparing creative funerals and emphasizes how physical activity can help immensely in healing and honoring someone who is gone.
“This is our way of saying goodbye,” Tevlin told me over the phone. “So, let’s roll up our sleeves. And what are we gonna do?”
The idea that it’s cathartic to move during a funeral, rather than sit in a puddle of your own tears, registered with me. I adored this heartbreaking essay by April Daniels Hussar about the relief of smashing a piñata after her sister’s death. And I was in awe of a family who bowled down the alley with personalized pins and a casket.
But I wondered if some of these ceremonies were trying too hard to put a happy face on a sad event. I knew that I couldn’t say goodbye to someone inside a bowling alley. In the past, I’ve needed the four walls of a synagogue, church, mosque, or home — the foundation of something sacred and solid — to get me through grieving periods that left me feeling so broken and wobbly.
I reached out to a few psychologists who specialize in grief to see how they felt about incorporating more laughter into funeral rites. Most of them admitted that it’s hard to do, but also said they welcome the challenge.
“Death marks one of the darkest existential aspects of being,” said Stephanie Jones, a clinical psychologist. “Bringing positivity through humor, creativity, joy, and play may provide pathways to connection, love, balance, and healing.”
Karen Wyatt, a hospice physician and author who hosts the online interview series End-of-Life University, agrees. “I think that ultimately our task as humans on this planet is to acknowledge that loss happens at every stage of our lives,” she said. “It’s painful, but we need to learn how to carry this loss without losing our joy and light. So, I think that’s really beautiful to add joy and fun and celebration into the funeral. That’s what I’d hope for at my own funeral.”
I was glad Wyatt described how she envisioned her own funeral. That was the part of this whole preplanned funeral thing I still couldn’t embrace. It was also a topic that naturally came up in the course of talking to funeral aficionados.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are your plans?” said Tevlin, the IWantAFunFuneral.com founder.
Actually, I did mind her asking.
It was fun, in a way, to scroll through pictures of decoupaged caskets and funeral pub crawls — one woman even had a kielbasa truck! But immersing myself in the world of fun funerals also forced me to think about the epilogue of my own life. And that gave me anxiety. Novelty aside, planning your own funeral is not an ideal activity for a Saturday night.
Tevlin isn’t so sure.
“If you can plan your own in advance,” she said, “it can help you get over your anxieties about death. If you’re doing it right, you’re enjoying it. I’m getting a genuine kick out of planning my funeral.”
She also noted that, after you die, the first thing people want to know is what your last wishes were. So why not give them the gift of carrying out your vision? This struck me as an easier way to contemplate my own post-life plans — I’d be mapping out my final fiesta for my family, so they could feel me with them, even without me there.
Jones, the psychologist, expressed a similar thought. “One cannot necessarily control the fact of death, but one can have agency in the creation of meaning around it.”
Fine, I decided, I’ll give it a shot. With encouragement from experts and gurus in the funeral, grief, and death arenas, I came up with a blueprint for my own funeral. And it goes something like this:
I want a lot of dancing and a disco ball. (These are must-haves.) I’m working on making a playlist with help from Funeral Zone’s rockin’ suggestions.
I want a small ceremony with a rabbi and someone telling knock-knock jokes. If it’s a rabbi who tells knock-knock jokes, even better.
I want anyone who knows me and wants to speak at my funeral to be able to speak.
I don’t want a casket; my body will be donated to science. (Have at it, docs!)
Afterwards, I want there to be plenty of olives, seltzer, and popcorn, because those are my favorite foods.
And maybe there’s a scavenger hunt; guests could search for random knick-knacks and letters I’ve left around my home, and take what they like. The rest of my stuff needs to be donated to charity, so no one has to worry about going through my leg warmers and bras.
And I’d love it if my family could leave that pink lamp in our living room turned on for a week or two. Because, if it’s possible, I’ll make it flicker just to say “hi.” I’m sure Shoshana can show me how.