Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture

By Jordan-Smith, Paul | Western Folklore, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture


Jordan-Smith, Paul, Western Folklore


Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture. Edited by Peter Narvaez. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003. Pp. vii + 358, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $24.95 paper)

Peter Narváez predicates his anthology on what he calls "the deathhumor paradox," which he believes is "on the rise" because communication technologies have altered contemporary views of space and society. He has divided the collection into four sections based on folkloric genres and the culture of popular entertainment. The mix is broad, varying from disaster jokes to pranks at wakes to death imagery at festivals to rock groups and "vernacular cinema." As he notes, this collection "joins a growing number of folklore studies that focus on private and public traditions of death," but with the specific slant toward humorous practices at times and sites of death and bereavement.

One weakness exhibited by several articles is a cursory treatment of the historical dimension. Narváez could have shored up his position about the death-humor paradox being on the rise by noting that in ages past, the humorous treatment of death grew alongside the threat of death (as in plague years). Christie Davies' assertion that there were no disaster jokes before television is poorly argued: lack of evidence never proves the nonexistence of a phenomenon, and jokes about disasters can sink without a trace because, unlike ballads, they tend not to preserve sufficient description of instigating events that turned out later to be of ephemeral importance.

As I read through the collection, a persistent voice seemed to call to me from my not-so-distant past. The voice had the identifiable timbre of Robert A. Georges, and asked a question that Bob persistently posed whenever his graduate students began to talk about a folktale in terms of text: "What is 'the story?'" The question was a reminder that the printed text is not a living story; or, as I once put it to him, the text is the corpse of the story-that static part left behind when the living quality has departed. He agreed.

I think Bob Georges' question persisted because of an irony I found in Narváez's title. It seemed to me that far too many articles took for granted that "the story" (or practice) could legitimately be separated from the living events in which it and its variants occurred: so that the words "of corpse" referred to the folkloristic approach used in analyzing and interpreting the customs and practices here presented. I felt moreover that though the common factor was certainly folkloric behavior, the behavioristic approaches espoused by Georges, Ben-Amos, Jones, Classic, Oring, and other folklorists were being overlooked or abandoned in favor of clever functional interpretations involving the use of heavy-hitting terms like "counter-hegemonic," terms that would certainly have bewildered those whose practices were being analyzed. …

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