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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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The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
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The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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