Send in the Clowns: Funeral Humor
Tue, Oct 31, 2023, 8:59am | By Liz Hamilton
The funeral home I used to work at was SOOO busy. Since we offered the lowest cremation price in town, we helped many families take care of their deceased loved ones. And to keep our costs low, we were usually understaffed, juggling what seemed like a million different tasks in one day. One particularly hectic day, our funeral home was under construction, and our crematory was temporarily at a different location. In the middle of the chaos of the phones ringing off the hook, company vehicles breaking down, essential staff calling in sick, and, oh, so much more, I somehow noticed a very small note on the case folder for a deceased lady. The note said that her family might be interested in a witness cremation, or being present when the body goes into the crematory. This was not a family I had met with, or maybe I would have already clarified this. Maybe not! Did I mention how busy and overwhelmed we were?
I quickly called the crematory operator to make sure that her cremation had not taken place yet. Luckily, it was scheduled for later that day. Dropping my other 5 million tasks (see how this number keeps growing as I am writing this? It may be 20 million by the end), I called the family to see if they were still interested in this option.
The daughter of the deceased was still very interested in witnessing, so I explained that our crematory facility was still under construction and said I would see what we could offer her. The manager thought we could offer the family a pseudo-witnessed cremation, with the family viewing the deceased in the area right outside the room with the crematory. Since the room itself was still piles of construction rubble and the walls were rough 2 x 4s, it was not a very presentable room. I offered the daughter this option, and she was truly grateful to be able to do even this. I updated the crematory operator and asked if anyone at that location could get her ready for her final viewing, a process that normally takes 10-20 minutes.
The operator said all the directors were busy, and no one could get her ready for viewing. I closed my eyes and sighed quietly, knowing this meant I had to leave the office and drive to the crematory about 15 minutes away to get her ready. I REALLY didn’t have time for this. I know how very important it is for families to get the chance to view their loved ones. I would just have to make room in my busy day for this side trip.
After heavy traffic on the way to the crematory, I bustled into the area the deceased was in and looked around for a private place to get her ready. There were still construction workers there, and I wanted to give her the deceased privacy. In the tucked-away room that I found, I opened the lid to her cardboard coffin to find an adorable little old lady lovingly draped with a colorful silk scarf. And I found a clown outfit inside.
It took me a few beats to process this. Why is there a clown outfit here? OK, sometimes people bring clothing that they want their loved one cremated in and we typically place them here. In the midst of my busy, stressful day, I had to laugh hysterically at the absurdity and beauty of the situation. When I looked at the clown outfit a bit more closely, I could see that it was just her size and completely handmade. Let me say that again, COMPLETELY HANDMADE. That is such a rarity these days. After many years as a seamstress, I knew the hours and hours that went into this amazing costume.
The clay jester’s mask, the floppy top hat in primary colors, the red velvet pantaloons with rainbow suspenders fastened with a giant button, a floofy peasant shirt with fancy trimming, the neckpiece that sent a cascade of ruffles trimmed with green rickrack down the middle of the chest, the red leggings trimmed with gold cord. Even ignoring the fact that this was entirely hand-stitched, this was such a spectacularly fun outfit. I stood there stupefied for another minute, wondering if this was an outfit that I was expected to put on her.
The question of putting the outfit on her may seem trivial, but dressing a deceased person is more challenging than you think, so I hesitated to commit to this. If you have seen movies about dressing the deceased, you know that the average funeral director will cut an outfit up the back to make it easier to put in on them. I have always avoided this if possible and especially felt that cutting up a handmade costume was completely out of the question, even if it would be cremated along with her in a few hours. It seemed like some weird sort of sacrilege. So, at this point, it looked as though I’d decided to dress this adorable little lady in her clown outfit.
Hey, why not? It absolutely seemed like the right thing to do on a lot of levels. Sure, I was running late for my next appointment and REALLY didn’t have time for this, but how many opportunities do we get to do this sort of thing? I mean, have you ever done this?
About a minute into dressing up this lovely lady, a coworker came by and mentioned that she had done the removal (transported the lady from her home to the mortuary), adding that the family had said she was a professional clown for many years. This confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing.
The end result was so beautiful. This tiny lady was almost so colorful that it hurt to look at her. It was one of my favorite sights ever, bringing me back to the glorious present on a day that seemed determined to yank me around.
Considering it a job well done, I rushed off to my appointment. Later, the crematory operator told me that the daughter of the deceased laughed until she cried when she saw her mother all dressed up in her clown suit. Apparently, the family wanted her cremated WITH the outfit, not necessarily IN the outfit. At first, this felt like a failure. Maybe I should have found a way to get in touch with the daughter even though I didn’t have her contact information handy? But I don’t think I would have done it any differently. If I got a heartfelt laugh, and her daughter got a heartfelt laugh, I think this sweet little clown did her job very well!
Liz Hamilton is a funeral director with a strong interest in green practices and a return to family-oriented death care. She entered the death care industry after participating in the home funeral of a family friend. While learning to face her own mortality, she helps others overcome the fear of their own death by caring for their dead loved ones. Living in the Santa Fe area with her partner and three dogs, Liz is also interested in rock climbing and reading speculative fiction. She currently works at Parting Stone.
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post/article does not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
« Previous Column: Pre-pandemic grief, ancestral memory, mourning the world in 2020 and healing in the present Next Column: Krampus is Coming: Why Halloween is Actually Just the Start of Spooky Season »
Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these blog posts/articles do not necessarily represent those of the New Mexico Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Krampus is Coming: Why Halloween is Actually Just the Start of Spooky Season
Thu, Nov 30, 2023, 3:22pm
By Monika Dziamka
Bread of Death and Life: A Short History of Pan de Muertos
Wed, Nov 1, 2023, 9:27am
By Vanessa Baca
Send in the Clowns: Funeral Humor
Tue, Oct 31, 2023, 8:59am
By Liz Hamilton
Pre-pandemic grief, ancestral memory, mourning the world in 2020 and healing in the present
Mon, Oct 2, 2023, 11:22am
By Venaya Yazzie
Nuestra Voz: The Chihuahua Hill Story and the importance of community, self-representation, and remembrance.
Mon, Oct 2, 2023, 11:20am
By Javier Marrufo