Rite of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life

Campbell Robertson and Frances Robles, New York Times, June 22, 2014

All last week, people were calling Louis Charbonnet to find out how they might avoid lying down at their funerals. Funeral directors have called; so have people with their own requests, such as the woman who wanted to be seen for the last time standing over her cooking pot.

The calls started coming in to the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home during its June 12 viewing for Miriam Burbank, who died at 53 and spent her service sitting at a table amid miniature New Orleans Saints helmets, with a can of Busch beer at one hand and a menthol cigarette between her fingers, just as she had spent a good number of her living days.

MiriamBurbank

Word of the arrangement began to spread, hundreds showed up, the news spread online, and now here was Mr. Charbonnet getting a call from a funeral director in Australia.

Ms. Burbank’s service was the second of its kind that Mr. Charbonnet had arranged, and the third in New Orleans in two years. But there have been others elsewhere, most notably in San Juan, P.R. Viewings there in recent years have included a paramedic displayed behind the wheel of his ambulance and, in 2011, a man dressed for his wake like Che Guevara, cigar in hand and seated Indian style.

“I never said it was the first,” said Mr. Charbonnet, who mentioned the 1984 funeral of Willie Stokes Jr., a Chicago gambler known as the Wimp, who sat through his funeral services behind the wheel of a coffin made to look like a Cadillac Seville.

New Orleans, which has long boasted of its ability to put the “fun” in funeral, seems like the place where this kind of thing would catch on, and Mr. Charbonnet boasts that his 132-year-old funeral home is well known for its funeral parades.

“Couple weeks ago we even had a mariachi band in here,” he said, while checking text messages from people he referred to almost gleefully as his “haters”–apparently other funeral directors. They were criticizing such viewings as improper or even sacrilegious, a concern Mr. Charbonnet admitted was shared by his wife. But he said that he had gotten the O.K. from a local priest and that, besides, he was honoring family wishes.

The phenomenon first appeared in Puerto Rico in 2008, four years before the first such funeral in New Orleans, with a 24-year-old murder victim whose viewing took place in his family’s living room, the body tethered against a wall. Angel Luis Pantojas’s funeral–called “muerto parao,” dead man standing–became an instant sensation.

Another murder victim, on a motorcycle, followed, along with the paramedic and the man dressed like Guevara. This year, a boxer’s body was arranged standing in a ring, and an elderly woman was propped up in her rocking chair.

The same funeral director, of the Marín Funeral Home in San Juan, arranged all of these.

“It’s been a real boom in Puerto Rico,” said Elsie Rodríguez, vice president of the funeral home. “People have requested every type of funeral that could possibly come to mind. We have only done six so far, because the people who have requested the funerals have not died yet.”

{snip}

At first, some in Puerto Rico were against the services–which start around $1,700–an opposition that Ms. Rodríguez attributed to “professional jealousy.” The Puerto Rico Legislature held hearings in which the Department of Health and other funeral directors weighed in.

“I thought it would propagate competitions for the most exotic funeral,” said Jorge Lugo, president of the Puerto Rico Funeral Home Association. “These people–not all of them, but some of these people who had these funerals–belonged to the underworld and had a life of fast money. It seemed to me that with these kinds of people doing this, there could be negative consequences.”

{snip}

The services began in New Orleans in 2012 with the death of Lionel Batiste, a brass band leader and dapper man about town. Mr. Batiste had said he did not want to have people looking down at him at his funeral, so at his service, here at Mr. Charbonnet’s funeral home, Mr. Batiste stood with his hands on his walking cane, derby tipped rakishly to one side.

Then in April of this year, there was the service for Mickey Easterling, a socialite and proficient party hostess.

“What my mother said to me some years ago was, ‘I want to be at my own funeral having a glass of Champagne in one hand and a cigarette in the other,’ ” said Ms. Easterling’s daughter, Nanci. And so she was, greeting her funeral guests from an elegant bench in the lobby of a historic downtown theater.

{snip}

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  • dd121

    Commenting on this just leaves me kind of stumped.

    • Katherine McChesney

      I also. This is clown-thinking at it’s best.

  • Rhialto

    The NYT is just promoting the joys of Diversity to its Liberal readers.

  • It wasn’t that long ago that white people had their dead dressed up and standing for photos. Of all the “wonders” that diversity brings us, this one is very low on the list to worry about.

    • IstvanIN

      I thought that was mostly children?

      • dd121

        I have a few posed pictures of my adult dead ancestors. Some go back 125 years. The reason for this is that they were poor farmers and didn’t have money for family pictures. Often the death pose was the only picture ever taken of them.

        • IstvanIN

          Same with babies and children. My grandmother had a picture of her twin brother and sister, died at birth.

          • dd121

            I’ve seen pictures like that. Very sad.

  • IstvanIN

    White people have been buried in Mercedes Benzes, Eldorados and on motorcycles, so why not? Pretty bizarre to me but of no real concern.

  • borogirl54

    I have heard of a guy being buried in his Corvette because that is his final wishes.

  • Dave West

    Not surprised that lady’s choice of cigarettes are menthols!

    • Even in death, their ghetto culture follows them!

      • Katherine McChesney

        She gots hur bling and her polyester wig on as well.

    • IstvanIN

      But no forty?

  • Biff_Maliboo

    My! How vibrant!

  • Oh, these people are sure enriching us. Now that’s what I call a vibrant culture that we boring whites are missing out on! (sarc)

  • Tim_in_Indiana

    One word for all this: Creepy.

  • Not Christian, more of a voodoo style thinking. It shows that after hundreds of years living in a white man’s world, these creatures are still thinking like children. They are IN our world but not OF our world.

  • I actually suggested that if I die of natural causes, my wife put me in a wheelchair and send me on a “Trailways” bus trip out east as a practical joke. I’d look like some guy who was merely asleep.

  • JohnEngelman

    This is weird, but hardly a political scandal.

  • IstvanIN

    I have seen it in the news long before this. It seems to have started in Puerto Rico among the less savory elements of PR society to honor the youthful deceased. Although I recently saw a news story of a white man who, along with his sons, built his own plexiglass casket so that he could be paraded through town and buried on his motorcycle.

  • bilderbuster

    Magic Johnson wants to be buried with his butt sticking out of the ground so his homies can stop by for a cold one.

  • If they want them to appear as they did in life;stand them in line at the welfare office.

    • Yeah, when they’re not standing there like zombies in the welfare office, they’re fighting and carrying-on. With blacks it’s zombie-land interrupted by moments of sheer terror.

  • NotTooSwift

    I have always considered viewing a corpse as some type of pagan ritual. This takes the cake. Imagine the cost to the family.

    I’m donating my body to science. The money my family will save on funeral expenses will pay for one hell of a wake.

    • MikeofAges

      Do you know what “science” will do with your body? Leaving the issue of “unnatural” purposes aside, I’ve heard that medical and health sciences students get a little slap happy with the human body parts. Stuff like boxing and slapping matches with disarticulated arms, playing catch with organs and the like. Rationalize any way you like, but as for me, a nice cool mausoleum would be the ticket.

      • NotTooSwift

        My wife has done worst s**t to me and I’m still alive. It can’t any worse when I’m dead, except I won’t feel it.

        • MikeofAges

          Whose death is it anyway?

  • shmo123

    Displaying and burying a corpse in a horizontal position affords some sense of dignity and repose. Burying someone in a car, or on a motorcycle is a bit eccentric, but I’m sure the cost prohibits most of that–not to mention a waste of a good Harley. But, posing a corpse at a table with a cigarette in hand is just plain weird and creepy.

    • Death itself, while perfectly normal is also a bit weird and creepy. It usually also hurts.

      • Katherine McChesney

        My father craved death because he was exhausted and in excruciating pain. He had major heart problems, lung cancer and pneumonia. It hurt but I was happy he had a release and that he was bound for heaven at the Second Coming.

        • I know where orcs go, even the retired ones who like vegetable gardening, so I’m not in a very big hurry.

  • kikz2

    y, iccck.. saw this awhile back w/the Easterling funeral.. in NOLA….although there were no Kools or cans of beer… it was a bit classier, but still… *shudders*…………….

    http://www.nola(dot)com/arts/index.ssf/2014/04/mickey_easterlings_memorial_se.html

  • MikeofAges

    And one more thing. Does cultural relativism have to pursue us into the hereafter? Darn, it’s your special day. Have it whatever way you want. Anything this side of high pressure resomation gets my respect.

  • alwaysright21

    the ultimate sheboon “looks at me!”