FUNERALS have always combined sadness and joy. You not only mourn the loss of a loved one, you also celebrate their life and the laughs you shared. So it's no surprise that they provide rich pickings for comedians.
In an episode of Peter Kay's Car Share aired last month it opened with Peter's character John and his gran driving along listening to Forever FM. Grandmaster Flash's White Lines faded and a cringe-worthy advertisement cut in.
"It's not always easy thinking about what will happen after you're gone," said the voice-over as John shifted awkwardly. "But by paying just a small amount each month you can be assured of a lump sum to be enjoyed by your family when you're just a photograph in a frame."
The ad finished with the slogan: "Arthur Whelan — for when tomorrow doesn't come."
Ouch. The underlying truth of the advert was comically subverted by the crassness of the wording.
The late great Irish comedian Dave Allen once wrote a television sketch which he introduced by explaining the old folk belief that only the first person to be buried in the local graveyard could get into heaven that day — so if two were buried, the last one in had to hang about in limbo until daybreak.
Cue two funeral directors racing to get their coffin into the ground first.
We see their walking processions speed up as they try to push their rivals off the path, tripping them up and even using an abandoned pram to transport the departed quicker to the grave.
The whole slapstick death race is undermined hilariously when they reach the church only to find a third funeral already taking place...
The BBC sitcom Steptoe & Son also mined bereavement for laughs. In the classic episode Oh What A Beautiful Mourning, Albert learns that his tight-fisted brother George has passed away. This is quite a surprise for son Harold who never knew his uncle even existed.
Greedy relatives descend for funeral, hovering like vultures. But the joke is on the squabbling clan — George's will left all his money to animal charities...
In real life, celebrities have been putting the fun in funerals for years. The great Joan Rivers' funeral was opened by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus performing a selection of Broadway show tunes.
While gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson's ashes were fired into the sky from a cannon paid for by Johnny Depp (who'd played Thompson in the film of his book Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas).
Malcolm McLaren's last journey was never going to be a quiet affair. As the punk svengali's hearse made its way through North London to Highgate cemetery, 200 mourners sang along to Sid Vicious' version of Sinatra's My Way...
Arguably the funniest real-life eulogy came from John Cleese at the funeral of fellow Python Graham Chapman.
"And I guess that we're all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only 48, before he'd achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he'd had enough fun," John said solemnly.
"Well, I feel that I should say: nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn't, if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Because you see, Gray would have wanted it this way. Really. Anything for him but mindless good taste."
Reflecting our schizophrenic attitude to death, Monty Python's cheery ditty Always Look On The Bright Side of Life has become the most requested song at British funerals.
A 2014 survey by The Co-operative Funeralcare also found that Queen were the most frequently requested rock band.
Top tracks? Don't Stop Me Now and Who Wants To Live Forever...
*DAVE Allen on Irish funerals: "A very important part of the Irish way of life is death. See, if anybody else anywhere else in the world dies that's the end of it, they're dead, but in Ireland when somebody dies we lay them out and watch them for a couple of days.
"It's called a Wake. And it's great. It's a party, a send off. The fella is laid out on the table and there's drinking and dancing and all the food you can eat and all of your friends come from all over the place and they all stand around the wake table looking at you with a glass in their hands looking at you and they say 'Here's to your health'.
"The terrible thing about dying over there is you miss your own wake. It's the best day of your life. You've paid for everything and you can't join in. Mind you, if you did you'd be drinking on your own..."
Talking of paying for everything — it makes sense to do so before you peg it. Afterall, as we reported last week in The Cost of Dying, burying a loved one is ten time more expensive than it was ten years ago. In fact, a funeral plan is probably the third most important thing you can do to bring peace of mind to yourself and your loved ones, after writing a Will and a LPA. And it's not just online Wills that are available these days. There are many online funeral plan providers too, who make the experience much simpler and more affordable, as well as potentially a lot more fun ...
Garry Bushell, May 2017