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Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Dose of Humour Macabre 
 By Anna Olson

The first time I heard what could be called a joke about death was from my father-in-law about 40 years ago. He told us about a man in his home town who had died and was laid out in the living room, as was the custom in those days. Suddenly, the man sat bolt upright. Someone grabbed a heavy stick and swung at the supposedly dead man, saying, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.”

I wish I had quizzed my father-in-law (who has since passed away). I would ask, “Did that really happen or are you joking?”

I went on the internet and browsed “body spasm after death” and learned that occasionally cadavers will spasm but it’s not a common occurrence. I’ll never know the truth of that story.

What is more common is for a person thought to be dead, waking up and being puzzled to find him- or herself in the morgue, naked, with a tag on his or her toe. Usually, the person can make enough noise to gain the attention of a rescuer and come back to the land of the living. (Browse this topic on the internet and find lots of stories.)

Some have a near death experience like this friend of my family when I was younger. “When I was five years old,” this woman said, “I seemed to die from an infection. I was laid out on a table in the living room for relatives, friends and neighbours to come by to pay their respects.

“Suddenly, my mother noticed movement under the sheet. She ran to me and saw my eyes open. She was ecstatic, hugging and kissing me. Later, I told her I had floated up and came to a happy, warm place. But someone told me it wasn’t my time, that I needed to go back and stay with my mother. So I came back down.”

I heard of another story where a person’s awakening was not as happily received. A man appeared to die who lived in a small town. He was buried in a coffin in the cemetery at the edge of town. He woke up and managed to get out of the coffin and walk to town. First he went to his house, opened the door and called to his wife. She turned white, screamed, and slammed the door on him. She thought he was a ghost.

Next, the man went to the town hall to tell the clerk he wasn’t dead. The young woman was annoyed and said to him, “You’re dead. The record says so. Prove you’re that man. I don’t want to change this if I don’t have to.” The man couldn’t comply, as he had no identification on him. I don’t remember how the story ended but I trust he found someone to help him prove he wasn’t a ghost and deserved to have his “alive” status returned to him.

Jews have a tradition of burying their dead by sundown on the day of death, if possible. This is because of what they perceive as the soul’s attachment to the body. They believe a quick burial helps bring closure for the soul to help it move on.

The problem is that perceived death is not always final.

Decades ago, when a body needed to be exhumed, workers sometimes would find scratch marks on the underside of the coffin lid. Oops. That meant a person was mistakenly buried alive. A system was devised to prevent the accidental death of supposed corpses. A bell was hung from a stick atop the grave with the end of the string going through a hole into the coffin so that the person could grab it and pull.

A succession of relatives and friends watched in shifts for a few days to see if the bell would ring. These watchers were said to have the “graveyard shift.” The phrase “dead ringer” refers to a person saved from an untimely death in his or her own coffin.

Here’s my experience with death and humour. My little girl Jenny died at 2½ years of age because of a congenital heart defect. It’s a horribly painful experience to bury a child – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. At the time of her death, I was in a 12-step program. One of the readings said to try and find some humour in life, no matter how painful the circumstances.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and asked aloud (I was by myself), “Is it possible I could laugh about Jenny’s death?” I promptly burst into tears. As tears rolled down my cheeks, I “saw” the spirit of Jenny hover near my left shoulder trying to lift my left arm even though it seemed to be made of lead. I heard her say, “That’s the idea, Mom, lighten up.” Since then, I have taken her advice and tried to find something to laugh about in any adversity in my life.

Here are some thoughts from a woman I met in The Compassionate Friends, a self-help group for bereaved parents and siblings. She wrote a humour column on grief for a bereavement magazine, if you can believe. I heard her speak at a conference where she talked about her book, Why Are All the Casseroles Tuna? She claimed that after her son died, neighbours, friends and relatives gave gifts of food to her family. She appreciated the thought but said that of the many casseroles, most were tuna!

Giving food to grieving people is a good idea – it’s a small island of comfort in a sea of pain. After Jenny died, a woman came to visit me with a meal for two in a basket, complete with plates and cutlery. She stayed and ate with me. I forget what the food was, but I’ll always think of her with appreciation for her thoughtful gesture.

We can’t bring our loved ones back but we can offer a small measure of solace through our company, compassion, and food. Sometimes, even a small dose of laughter will help.

Anna Olson is a writer and editor living in Winnipeg. She is the author of Exploring the Mysteries of Life & Death, and can be reached at

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