The Humorous Side of Death

A Book Report on ‘Exit Laughing:  How Humour Takes the Sting Out of Death’

Written By:  Niru Kumar, National Post May 24, 2012 – 7:00 AM ET

Despite its inevitability, death is a topic that most of us try to avoid almost as much as death itself. Not so for the group of 24 authors whose essays fill the newly published collection, Exit Laughing: How Humour Takes the Sting Out of Death.

You might be forgiven for thinking, at first blush, that the book contains the secret psychic balm to the emotional agony of death that always has been part of the human condition. Victoria Zackheim, editor and contributing author, gently tempers that expectation. “I’m not saying that humour is the elixir to soothe our pain,” she says. “But I do believe it can open a door to emotions shared, and perhaps through this sharing we can not only process the reality of death, but mend the complex and often difficult relationships we share with the person who is dying.”

Some entries in this collection will make you laugh aloud. Like the story about a granddaughter wondering if her grandfather knew that his last moments of life “had been part of a Jewish chicken soup joke.” Or the story about the hopelessly lost hearse driver, in search of the burial ground, who led a procession of cars “mostly filled with elderly mourners with bladder issues” into one bumpy cul-de-sac after another.

Or the story about a dying comedic actor who had assembled his loved ones around his deathbed while he closed his eyes to breathe his last breath. After what seemed like hours to those around him, he popped open one, just one, eyeball and took them all in one at a time, and gave them all a final side-splitting laugh by which to remember him.

Some stories will make you cry. Like that of an elderly woman afflicted by dementia who became a virtual raving lunatic when she was not given a window seat for a flight; and her daughter, whose tender handling of an increasingly difficult mother helped her to understand the special significance that soaring among the clouds held for the ailing woman.

Another beautiful story describes a woman who consciously decided to refuse further treatment, thereby ending a dignified life with a dignified death. Enviably, she had a chance to gather her close and extended family for a farewell celebratory party, tie up all her loose ends, say her final goodbyes and die peacefully.

Zackheim described each story as “a hug” that she hopes will not only bring comfort and support for anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, but also allow people to embrace humour openly by seeing that it does not detract from the dignity of death, but rather, actually adds to it.

My own “eureka!” moment came thanks to 80-year-old actor and writer Malachy McCourt, whose essay about his mother (Angela, of Angela’s Ashes fame) appears in Thursday’s National Post.

In an email to me, he said, “I am looking forward to our chat as I find death to be a jolly subject.” When we did meet over skype, he merrily replied to “How are you?” with “Every day above ground is a good day!”

Malachy McCourt is not a man in denial. He has accepted his mortality and faced his inevitable death head on. With that acceptance, a burden has lifted. Rather than wasting precious time dreading or mourning a foregone conclusion, he can instead rejoice in a life well-lived and relish whatever days, weeks, months or years are still his to enjoy.

The book, apparently, does have a “secret,” and what it reveals is this: Grief is an inevitable fact of love and loss, but once we accept and perhaps even embrace it, sorrow need not be our only companion through an unbearably difficult time. Laughter and happiness can, and maybe should, come along for the ride and lighten our burden and our souls.

When I asked Malachy how he would like to be remembered once he’s gone, he replied without hesitation: “He’s dead, and I’m glad I knew him. He made me laugh.”

Words to die by.