In a word... funeral

Dorothy Parker, when US president Calvin Coolidge died, asked, ‘How can they tell?’

Have you ever wondered about those compliments paid to the dead at funerals? You know the sort of thing: “He/she never said a bad word about anyone”, “. . . wouldn’t hurt a fly”, “. . . such a quiet man/woman”, “you’d hardly know she/he was there at all” .

Listening to such remarks I usually have to stop myself from asking, "How do you know he/she was ever alive at all?" I am reminded of that much quoted line from American wit Dorothy Parker who, when she was told in 1933 that US president Calvin Coolidge had died, asked: "How can they tell?" Coolidge had, famously, all the qualities of water: being colourless, tasteless and odourless.

What is most interesting about funerals where the deceased is reduced to nonentity is how this is accepted as a good thing and as something to which all the recently deceased should aspire. Who wants that?

One line that I believe should be removed from all obituaries, by order, because it is so deeply insulting to the recently deceased, is that “he/she suffered fools gladly”. What insensitivity allows obituary writers trot that out with such frequency it could be described as cliche, but then dressed as a compliment.

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To any intelligent eye such tolerance is a grave character flaw.

Since when did suffering fools become an elevated virtue? Who other than an imbecile or, worse, a hypocrite, can suffer fools "gladly"? How refreshing then to read such as the Daily Telegraph obituary for Count Gottfried von Bismarck, who died on July 2nd, 2007, aged 44. It described him as "a louche German aristocrat with a multifaceted history as a pleasure-seeking heroin addict, hell-raising alcoholic, flamboyant waster and a reckless and extravagant host of homosexual orgies." Such generous detail.

It continued that he “showed early promise as a brilliant scholar, but led an exotic life of gilded aimlessness that attracted the attention of the gossip columns from the moment he arrived in Oxford in 1983 and hosted a dinner at which the severed heads of two pigs were placed at either end of the table.

“When not clad in the lederhosen of his homeland, he cultivated an air of sophisticated complexity by appearing in women’s clothes, set off by lipstick and fishnet stockings.”

Now that would have been a funeral worth going to!

Funeral, ceremony of burying a dead person. From the Latin funus.

inaword@irishtimes.com