Exit Laughing the Way People Feel about Death and Dying Is Starting to Change

By John M. McGuire Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 25, 1994 | Go to article overview

Exit Laughing the Way People Feel about Death and Dying Is Starting to Change


John M. McGuire Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


NO ONE EVER suggested that dying was a lark.

But it's certainly foregone. And for those who face it with a trace of whimsy, life's exit can have its moments. You can, pardon the banality, take it with you. In a manner of speaking.

What follows does not qualify as a trend because it's been around in one form or another since before the burial practices of ancient Egyptians. They were sent to their final resting place with enough stuff to fill a full-size Mayflower van.

It's been around since the cave persons, no doubt.

Funeral directors call it "personalizing" a death. "The more you personalize it, the more it's helpful and healing for those left behind," said Lisa Baue Devaney, president of Baue Funeral Homes in St. Charles County. "The more they personalize, the better. And we tell them not to worry about what people might think."

Lisa Devaney is talking about the objects - other than the body itself - that friends and loved ones put in open caskets before burial. Everything from the ashes of a beloved cat to a telephone. From women's underwear to a six-pack of beer.

When her own father, David, died, the family placed a favorite pipe in the casket and hung a portrait of John Wayne on the viewing room wall; Devaney's father was a big John Wayne fan.

"It makes people more relaxed," she said. "It's not as gloomy as it used to be."

Even madcap wakes, such as the raucous affairs of some Irish Catholics, have beneficial side effects. "Laughter is a form of grief; it releases endorphins," said Devaney. "Laughter is a way of processing grief."

Frank C. Borghi, distinctive among St. Louis undertakers because he was a World Cup soccer player, had a bad funeral moment because of a ball. Only later did he laugh about it.

(In 1950, Borghi was the goalie who received much of the credit in a shocking, 1-0 U.S. upset over England. It was a first-round game in Brazil, the best a U.S. team has ever done in the World Cup. The victory so upset the Brits that an English player said afterward, "Bloody ridiculous. Can't we play them again tomorrow?")

But it was another kind of ball that upset Borghi on this occasion. Make that more than one ball.

Watching as the casket was being carried down the steps, Borghi was startled by a strange, clattering sound.

"Oh, my God," he thought, "the casket is falling apart."

An undertaker's worst nightmare - a disintegrating coffin right there on the steps of Calcaterra Funeral Home, 5140 Daggett Avenue. The steps at Calcaterra slope at an angle that would put one in mind of the Italian Alps.

But then Borghi realized the casket wasn't breaking up. It was only the noisy cascade of rolling golf balls, placed there by golfing buddies of the deceased. Only problem was, Borghi didn't know they'd done it.

"It happens all the time - golf balls and clubs, fishing poles, cigars, a can of beer, lures, stuffed animals, hats, it's unending," said Frank Heckler, of the Alexander & Sons Funeral Home. "The only thing we try to discourage is fine jewelry; it's silly to be buried with big stones."

Del Sherman, president of Lupton Chapel in University City, has seen the usual things go in a casket: six packs of beer, bottles of Scotch and gin, carton of cigarettes, photographs and hats, heart-rending notes from grandchildren. …

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