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?