While specific rites and rituals vary across cultures and time, anyone who has been to a few memorial services or even seen them on TV understands funerals. We may not know how to feel about death or the deceased, but we do know how we’re supposed to act.
A funeral, after all, is a performance — and I don’t mean that snidely. There are common and expected settings, props and costumes, with overlapping scenes but well-defined acts. We have roles to play and lines to say and even when we screw up (can’t stop crying! ack, can’t start!), we don’t. Funerals are flexible. Flubs are forgiven. Things mean Stuff, and if all goes as planned, including the unplanned, people walk away changed.
Because we all “get” funerals and know what we’re supposed to get out of them, it’s no small wonder the funeral performance has been subverted and co-opted as a means of social commentary and to express and influence public opinion. Mock funerals have been used throughout history as vehicles for satire, issue awareness, protest and social change.
On November 14, the citizens of Venice held a mock funeral for their city and its dying population, currently below 60,000. The 1993 total was a healthier 74,000; in 1971, the city topped 108,300. The mock funeral on Saturday was an effort to promote awareness of the problem and invigorate Venetian pride.
Take it away, Al Jazeera!
The day before, copping the same culturally understood form, students at Florida State University held a funeral for gay rights and marriage equality complete with a eulogy, funeral procession and mock burial with opening and closing remarks. The demonstration was in reaction to the recent overturn of gay marriage rights in Maine.
Lastly, just before Halloween, a sports bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin, working with a radio station, erected a coffin containing a Brett Favre effigy, encapsulating the “he’s dead to us” emotion Packer fans have felt after quarterback Favre temporarily quit the NFL then signed on with the neighboring arch nemesis, the Vikings. The initial spectacle attracted 500 mourners for the procession, including hearses and pall-bearers, while others came to view the “corpse” over the next couple of days, on display in the corner of the bar.
Mean spirited? Um… yes? The radio station allegedly received death threats for the incident. But satire-too-far aside, as well as the abiding silliness of the whole thing, devoted Packer fans have felt genuine sadness, loss and betrayal about Favre’s defection. Some mourners brought pictures, football cards, and other mementos to place inside the coffin. It’s all part of the gag, but it’s also a familiar way to deal with grief and work through the frustration and pain of someone who is dead — or someone who you wished was, or who feels dead to you anyway.
These three examples are just within the last few weeks; numerous other instances exist, such as mock funerals for the First Amendment or symbolic funerals for aborted fetuses (this latter being slightly different in tone, though still enacted as a form of protest and demonstration). Though varying in intention, mock funerals invariably capture attention, sometimes shockingly. Death as metaphor is one thing; to see it enacted and performed can be moving, disturbing or even infuriating — and because of our cultural familiarity, it works. It’s easy to know what’s going on and how we’re supposed to feel about it — even if we disagree with the issue of contention.
I hoped to do more research on this, to get some historical context and cultural studies input. I found next to nothing on this topic, which surprises me. “Mock funeral” doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page (gasp!). Please comment if you know of any books or articles about this — or give me a grant or book advance and I’ll get right on it.