Over the course of this class we have read and seen many examples of how different people relate to death. That being said, there has always been a sort of unspoken rule that discussing death should always be done in a respectful and mature way. What happens when that is completely turned on its head?
Casket, Museum of Funeral Customs, Springfield, Illinois, 2006 by Robert Lawton
The musical Fun Home has a lot of layers to discuss. It follows the true life story of Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist who grew up in her father’s funeral home. The musical goes on to follow Alison discovering her sexuality, dealing with her closeted gay father’s infidelity to her mother, and ultimately her father’s apparent suicide. There is a lot to unpack there. However, one of the most striking moments for me, the moment that really turns all expectations on its head, is the song “Come to The Fun Home.” This song is the imaginary advertisement child age Alison and her siblings try to make for their family’s funeral home.
Photo by mohamed_hassan
When you witness children running across stage, singing a happy and childlike melody, but having the lyrics “You’ve got to bury your mama / But you don’t know where to go” or “Our caskets (ooo) / Are satin-lined (ooo)” you cannot help but laugh. This humor comes from the inherent disconnect between children playing around and a song about funeral home practices. The catchy little rhymes continue as they mention that the Bechdel Funeral Home has folding chairs, smelling salts, ample parking, and more. It goes so drastically against our perceptions of a funeral home and those who work there that it is hard to even frame them in the same mental image. The fact is we think of funeral homes as somber locations and playing children are practically the symbol of life.
Now why else is this so shocking? For one our western society has the tendency to try to hide or diminish death from young children, not let them play sword fight with aneurysm hooks. This openness with death with those so young immediately sets off alarm bells. Also there is a lack of reverence to death within the lyrics, the staging (the kids playing on a casket), and the melody that completely disorients our normal perception of the processes and rituals surrounding death. All of this leaves the audience hysterically stunned. What I believe the general public should take from this moment within the play Fun Home is the reminder that death is not inherently somber. Our relationship with death is entirely a societal convention and while it is not necessarily bad to be conditioned in such a way, it is important to recognize that it is there.
Watching Fun Home was one of the most powerful theatre experiences I’ve had in recent years and I highly recommend either seeing the show, reading the graphic novel it was based on, or listening to the soundtrack if anyone is interested. Keep your eye out for this particular scene and see if it challenges how you view death.
Posted in grief and mourning, ritual, the process of death
Tagged Acting, Carroll, casket, children, coffin, Colleen, Colleen Carroll, corpse, death, dying, Expectations, fear, Fun Home, funeral home, Musical, Off putting, Theatre
What describes your life? Is it a camera? A football? Maybe a plane? I have a hard time picking an object that sums up my life, but some people have the perfect idea in mind.
That is where Paa Joe from the Ga tribe in coastal Ghana comes in. Unlike modern Americans, people in Ghana celebrate death and commonly commemorate it with elaborate and unique coffins. The living aim to honor their dead with coffins that represent their legacy. Paa Joe, after almost five decades in the business, now works with his son to handcraft these highly sought after caskets. His son explains that their coffins
“remind people that life continues after death, that when someone dies they will go on in the afterlife, so it is important that they go in style.”
Ghanian families and surrounding community members place much value on showcasing the part that contemporary African art plays life and death. They strongly believe that the dead must be buried in something that represents the role they played while alive, in order to remember where they come from and what they have left behind as they move into the afterlife. Although these handmade coffins can cost upwards of $15,000, people of the Ga tribe believe that it is more honorable to live in lifelong debt because of the burial ceremony than it is to cut the costs of a proper funeral. In conjunction with the idea that the funeral is the culmination of all life events, it is extremely vital to allocate all resources to executing this ritual in the proper fashion.
I find it very interesting that although the casket appearance is intended to encapsulate someone’s entire life, the people within the casket actually have no say in deciding what that object will be. Family and friends are tasked with the job of determining what they commission Paa Joe to create. What object will a part time fisherman, talented artist, soccer-loving father be placed in?
Reducing a person to the representation of a singular object goes hand in hand with the impersonal nature of the cadaver. The cadaver may symbolize the person and the life they once had, but in itself is bereft of any form of personhood. Memories and stories take the place of the body in terms of remembering who the person was and what they were like. These exquisite coffins are by all means quite impressive, but many could argue that they are unnecessary. After 3-4 days of public display, they are lowered six feet under the ground and are never seen again. Culturally they still uphold values of social order and religion, but physically they play a minimal role in the end of life.
All things considered, would you want to be buried in a fantasy coffin, and if so…what would it be?
For more information and pictures, click here or watch this short clip.
While the idea of being buried in a casket spans multiple societies, Ghanaians have put a modern twist on this tradition. “Fantasy coffins,” as they have been dubbed by reporters, are caskets shaped like something relevant to the person being buried. From cars to animals to mobile phones or even a camera, Ghanaians are requesting increasingly diverse casket shapes. Just what do these unique caskets represent? For some families, the casket shape represents what the person loved to do- a pineapple shaped coffin for a man who grew pineapples, one that is fish shaped for a fisherman, etc. Others can represent some sort of ambition- a woman who had never flown before was buried in a casket shaped like a plane. The choice of casket design can be a reflection of status, with some being shaped as luxury cars or other high end products. Of course, some people choose a more religious design. One carpenter in Accra told BBC reporters one of his most popular designs is the Bible.
An example of a “fantasy casket” shaped like a robot. Photo credit: “Robot casket” by sshreeves licensed by CC 4.0
While the casket designs may seem lighthearted, Ghanaians still take death very seriously. By purchasing an elaborate casket, it is a way of showing respect for the family member who has passed. Also, the price tag of these custom made caskets is very high, starting at around 1000 Ghanaian cedi or approximately $250; many Ghanaians make this much in a year. Casket design can also be a point of contention among the family members of the dead if the deceased never left a clear indicator of what they would like their casket to be shaped liked, with family members disagreeing about what design is most appropriate to take the body into the afterlife. However, most families can agree that the purpose of the casket is to provide a respectful and meaningful vessel for the deceased.