We stand in a forlorn little clump on the funeral parlor sales floor – my brother, my mother, and I – attempting to pick out a casket for a man who can’t possibly be dead. We are all a little lost, not sure yet who we are without him or whether the family center will hold. One thing we all see for certain but don’t know how to say: the glossy wood and satin linings are just all wrong. Dad was a man who worked hard, lived hard, laughed hard. The idea of him dressed in funereal black and lying with his hands folded in one of these slick, be-frilled monstrosities is absurd.
And then the undertaker looks at us and asks the momentous question: “What direction do you want him to face when he’s buried?”
I am in danger of being swamped, the world turned upside down and inside out that such a thing could possibly matter. A breath. A heartbeat. And then my wonderful big brother says, “I think he’d want to point north.”
With that, right there in the middle of that terrible place, the two of us are doubled over and whooping with laughter while our poor mother apologizes to the undertaker for our unseemly behavior. For that perfect shining moment, the grief recedes. The laughter unites us, pulls us back together as family, and the world rights itself and begins once more to make a reasonable amount of sense.
Some call it gallows humor. Psychologists call it a defense mechanism. Frankly, I don’t care what you call it, I will continue to find the humor in the darkest places because for me that’s what keeps the world spinning on its axis.
It seems to me that laughter and tears often lie along parallel paths, and that laughter is just as healing and necessary as tears. Years ago I watched my beloved brother-in-law dealing with the loss of his wife, and for the first time saw that grief could be beautiful. He shared his loss openly and deeply, alternating between tears and funny stories that set us all to laughing. I could see the healing unfolding before my eyes in this communal process of shared story and emotion.
The best of books follow this course, it seems to me, riding the line between the unbearably painful and the absurd and hilarious. When I read A Prayer for Owen Meanie years ago, Irving managed to make me both laugh and cry on the same page. I closed the book with a sort of awe, asking, “How did you do that?”
I still haven’t figured it out. This sort of writing takes both courage and skill, a combination of which I haven’t mastered yet. But then, I’m still learning, both how to write and how to live. And I’m hopeful that one of these days the words will line up on the page in a shining moment where grief and humor meet in the perfect chemistry of emotion.
What are your thoughts about dark humor, both in life and in literature?
17 Replies to “Deb Kerry Finds Humor in the Dark Places”
YES. Yes, a thousand times. I cannot bear darkness without laughter to leaven it, in either books or life. Laughter is my salvation. Laughter is a gift as great as love. (IMHO, of course.)
Your humble opinion and mine agree on this point, lol. Somehow, I am not surprised. : )
Yes, me, too. Life IS funny and it’s through these dark moments that humor helps remind us of our humanity.
Hoo boy, yes on A Prayer for Owen Meany. And yes on laughing along with crying. I think life is complicated: anything or any situation has more than one quality about it, and it can be a challenge to hold all these things in our minds at one time. The impersonal teacher who let me have free run of the library. The gossipy boss who also cleared away red tape for our projects. So yeah, being able to laugh and cry is not just a gift but a skill, showing highly advanced thinking. 😉
Oh yay – I shall now claim to be a highly advanced thinker instead of twisted and skewed. It sounds so much better! I like that you’ve added the thought about the complexity of people.
Oh, without a doubt, Kerry–it is that fine line between the two and more often, the ways they mesh seamlessly. I always think about my days in theater when you were guaranteed a harder laugh from the audience on the heels of a very serious moment; it’s human nature: we need that release.
But to pull it off in literature can be so much harder. Indeed, Irving is a genius at it, among so many other things. 🙂
I once saw a lecture by a “Laughter Therapist.” I kid you not. She claimed that the two lie so close together that one will lead into the other, and demonstrated it with a volunteer from the audience who was grieving. As for Irving – yeah, genius.
This is SO true! If you watch people at a funeral reception or a wake, sooner or later they always end up laughing. The origins of “tragedy and comedy” (the Greek masks) relates to this too – when a person looks into the pit of despair which is life on earth, (s)he has two choices: to cry (from which we get tragedies), and to laugh (and comedy is born). They are equal and opposing reactions to reality – and some of us were just born with a tendency to land “laugh side up.”
Beautiful post, Kerry. Humor is so important — in life, and in writing. What I find most frustrating as a reader (or viewer, when it comes to TV/movies) is when a serious plot has no moments of levity, or when a funny story has no moments of reflection or seriousness. You need both to make the story work, just as you need both in life.
Thanks Dana! And I totally agree – the two need each other, at least to some degree.
Shoot me now – I laugh out loud along with you and your siblings . I know that humor is my lifeline – finding tidbits of light in darkness – because at some point – it shows us the way out.
Amazing post, Kerry. xo
Thanks Amy. I know people who lack this ability, and I often wonder how they manage to survive.
Kerry – we really WERE separated at birth. When I went to the funeral parlor with my brother to pick up my father’s ashes, we had to wait in the little waiting area for them to get the wooden box (“urn” seems wrong if it’s not a vase) from the back. As the woman walked back into the room carrying it, I looked up and said “Oh! A dad-in-the-box.”
She almost dropped him.
My brother gave me a look like he thought I needed to be committed. I smiled, and we both burst out laughing. The the awkward moment passed and we left with dad. When my brother and I got to the parking lot, he looked at me and said “DAD IN THE BOX??” and we both burst out laughing again.
After that, he told me he’d always appreciate me saying it, because he had been about to cry and desperately trying not to. Gallows humor indeed. Thanks for sharing your story – it’s nice to know that someone else has been there.
Susan, when I read your story here I literally laughed out loud, and then I almost cried. Yep. Precisely that. I’m curious – do you find yourself in trouble with this? Sometimes when these little gems slip out of my mouth, those more serious minded are not amused.
I am always in trouble unless I’m being silent.
It’s definitely true that not everyone shares this odd sense of humor. Fortunately, my good friends have learned to expect it (I may still shock them periodically, but at least they laugh along with me) and I tend to muzzle the tendency in public (at least a little, and when I can).
Strangely, writing mystery novels seems to have given me a little extra leeway. People seem to expect a certain amount of strangeness in those who murder their imaginary friends.
Great post! Whatever it’s called, the laughter does make the more horrific things less so. I always seem to think (sometimes SAY) the strangest things whenever a dire situation occurs. I’ve learned to be a bit more selective as to when to admit to those strange things – but the release is needed and those folks who know me are just as macabre (and hilarious), so that’s ok! 😉
C.E., I know exactly what you mean. I love hanging out with people who understand that the macabre is funny, because I don’t have to guard my words so closely. : )
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