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12 Strange Funerals and Funeral Traditions

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Funerals don't necessarily have to be somber events. These memorials and traditions are heavy on quirk.

1. The last hurrah

Miriam Banks was the life of the party—even at her funeral. When she passed away in June, her daughters honored her memory by recreating a party scene familiar to friends and loved ones. Instead of a coffin, the deceased sat at a table with a cigarette in her hand and her favorite beer and whiskey in front of her. The service also included R&B music and spinning disco balls.

2. Highway to heaven

Billy Standley was so ride or die about his 1967 Electra Glide cruiser that he spent the last years of his life planning his burial on the motorcycle. The unusual last rites involved buying three cemetery plots and designing a custom-made Plexiglas casket. When the fateful day finally arrived last January, a team of five embalmers prepared Standley for his final ride, mounting his body on the bike and dressing him in leather biking gear and a helmet. He led the procession to the cemetery.

3. Go out with a bump and grind

You only die once, so why not have a good time at your funeral? In Taiwan, some people hire strippers to appease wandering spirits and liven up the occasion. The dancers don't usually strip down to their birthday suits, but they're not shy about jumping on caskets or giving mourners lap dances. If families want a more buttoned-up service without sacrificing fun, they can hire all-female marching bands that emulate the jazz funerals popular in New Orleans, albeit in miniskirts and go-go boots.

4. Dying in character

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Actor Bela Lugosi made a name for himself playing Count Dracula in the original 1931 film and several other horror movies. Alas, he struggled to get other parts, later saying, "I'd like to quit the supernatural roles and play just an interesting, down-to-earth person." Wish granted—well, maybe just the "down-to-earth" part. When Lugosi died of a heart attack in 1956, his son and third wife Lillian Arch buried him in the Dracula cape he used for appearances.

5. The end of the road

They say you can't take it with you, but that didn't stop George Swanson from being buried with his Corvette in 1994. Swanson's widow honored his long, wonderful life by driving his cremains to the cemetery in her own sports car, putting the urn in the driver's seat, and popping an Engelbert Humperdinck tape in the cassette player. Car enthusiasts might find the Corvette's death more tragic—the car only had 27,000 miles on its odometer.

6. #Funeral

Funeral selfies are almost universally considered tacky, but what about the funeral livetweet? When publicist and Twitter addict Michael O'Connor Clarke died of cancer in 2012, his friend Mathew Ingram decided to share an online play-by-play of the memorial service. Ingram lost a few followers along the way, but Clarke's family in Ireland appreciated the gesture. "I thought it would be fitting to livetweet Michael’s funeral because of his interest in such things, but I also thought he would have seen the humor in it if he had been alive," Ingram later blogged. "I didn’t count on seeing an additional benefit, however, which was the ability to share what was happening with others who couldn’t attend."

7. Game over

No one really knows if there's life after death, but football can be arranged. The family of Pittsburgh Steelers superfan James Henry Smith transformed the funeral home with a small stage and furniture from Smith's living room. The deceased was placed in his favorite recliner, remote control in hand and beer and cigarettes at his side, so he could comfortably watch a loop of Steelers football on TV.

8. Send in the clowns

Even if you ban black clothing and encourage a celebratory mood, funerals still tend to be sad. Some families in Europe call for reinforcements in the form of professional funeral clowns. The jokesters offer a menu of tricks—from squirting flowers to balloon animals—to respectfully lighten the mood. One Dutch clown can even be hired to break wind during particularly solemn or tedious parts of the memorial. Sounds fun ... unless you're scared to death of clowns.

9. Strike out

When Judy Sunday passed away in 2013, her family and friends preferred to bowl instead of bawl. They held a memorial at her favorite bowling alley, where they spelled "RIP Judy" in pins and then knocked them down with the dolly-mounted casket. And yes, they wore matching league shirts.

10. High and mighty

Tupac Shakur's 1996 murder is still a mystery. But in 2011, his former rap group, The Young Outlawz, came clean about his controversial memorial service. They claim that at a picnic for family and friends honoring the deceased rapper, they mixed Tupac's cremains with marijuana, rolled joints, and let their love and grief go up in smoke. Their inspiration: lyrics from Tupac's song "Black Jesus."

11. Keeping up with the bones

In some parts of Madagascar, it's a good thing when a deceased relative turns over in his or her grave. The Malagasy tradition of Famadihana, known as the turning of the bones, calls for regular unburying of the dead in order to change their clothes, walk them around the village, and dance with their surviving loved ones. The corpses are then swaddled in clean blankets and put back to rest until the next family reunion.

12. TKO

Amateur boxer Christopher Rivera Amaro of San Juan, Puerto Rico was tragically killed before he could become a champion. To honor his brave spirit and unrealized potential, his survivors planned a wake in a makeshift boxing ring. Amaro's body was dressed in boxing trunks, a robe, and blue gloves and placed in the corner of the ring, as if his fight were just beginning.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
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History
The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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Big Questions
Do Media Outlets Write Obituaries for Old or Ill Celebrities in Advance?
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Archie D'Cruz:

Oh, absolutely, and not for just the old and ill, but also for the very famous. (You can bet, for example, that pieces would have been penned on Barack Obama as soon as he was first elected president).

They are known as advance obituaries, and while not all major news organizations do it, many of the largest certainly do. Of the ones that I know of, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, CNN, and leading news agencies Reuters, AP, and AFP all maintain obits, which are updated on a regular basis.

Obit writers at The New York Times, which is known to have at least 1700 of these posts on file, will sometimes even contact the subject of their grim pieces for interviews, with the request posed as “We’re updating your biographical file” or “This is for possible future use.”

With someone like Stephen Hawking, the web tribute with images and video would very likely have been prepared in advance as well. Television networks like the BBC also pre-prepare video packages that can be aired soon after a celebrity death.

This practice of creating advance obituaries can (and often does) lead to more than just embarrassment.

The most famous recent one that I can recall was that of Apple founder Steve Jobs, declared dead by Bloomberg in 2008—three years before his actual passing. Bloomberg was updating its advance obit but wound up publishing it by mistake, sending shockwaves through Wall Street.

Its retraction was even more cringe-worthy, refusing to even name Jobs and simply saying, “An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News ... the item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.”

Several other well-known people have befallen the same fate—among them George H. W. Bush (who Der Spiegel described in its 2013 obit as a “colorless politician whose image only improved when it was compared to the later presidency of his son, George W. Bush”), and several world figures including Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, and Fidel Castro whose obits were wrongly published on CNN’s development site in 2003.

A (mistaken) CNN obituary for Gerald Ford

Sometimes, though, a too-hastily published obit can turn out to have a silver lining.

In 1888, several newspapers announced Alfred Nobel’s passing, in a mix-up related to his brother Ludwig’s death. A French newspaper, in its obit on the Swedish arms manufacturer, thundered “The merchant of death is dead,” adding that Nobel “became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before (through his invention of dynamite).”

On reading that report, Nobel is said to have become distressed about how the world would remember him. It led to him bequeathing the bulk of his estate to form the Nobel Prize in 1895. He died a year later.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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