James Gill: Opting not to take death lying down

The latest fashion at wakes is propping up the decedent in a lifelike pose, and New Orleans-based Schoen Funeral Home is leading the way.

In April, it arranged for mourners at the Saenger Theater to be greeted posthumously by socialite Mickey Easterling, dressed to the nines with a boa spilling over the wrought-iron bench on which she had been seated. In one cold dead hand was a glass of Champagne; a cigarette holder was in the other.

Miriam Burbank, who died this month, had somewhat earthier tastes. New Orleans funeral director Louis Charbonnet had her displayed at a kitchen table with a can of Busch beer, two miniature Saints helmets and a menthol cigarette between her fingers. Behind her, beside the TV, was a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

It is unlikely that Easterling and Burbank crossed paths when they were alive, but the Great Leveler paired them up when they refused to take it lying down.

Zymora Kimball, who was raised by Burbank, told the New York Times that she asked for a funeral that was “out of the box.” Charbonnet took her literally.

Proud though we all must be when New Orleans emerges as a trendsetter, others will be trying to muscle in on the craze, and we must not rest on our laurels. As the Hollywood of the South, we should be well placed to marry our funerary flair with entertainment technology. All we need is to team Schoen and Charbonnet up with an animatronics whiz, and the undertaking business will have its Frankenstein.

Right now, we have stiffs at funerals. There is no reason we shouldn’t have working stiffs someday.

As long ago as 1964, Walt Disney produced an eerily convincing facsimile of Abe Lincoln declaiming the Gettysburg address at the World’s Fair. What Disney could do with rubber and plastic back then should be a breeze with embalmed remains today.

The prospect is especially exciting in New Orleans, for it could mean a new lease on life for the jazz funeral. Putting the late lamented at the center of the action should not overtax the animators, for tradition demands a stately procession to the cemetery, and, with just a few grave electronic nods, the corpse would fit right in. Only on the way back do mourners get to dance and whoop it up; by then, the star of the show is in his final resting place.

If there is a downside to the new-age funeral, it is that the grief-stricken will sometimes drown their sorrows. Someday a drunk will spot a well-dressed lady mingling with the throng and try to start a conversation. They’ll have to run him out of there when, finding himself ignored, he commences to yell, “Well, you’re a snooty one, aren’t you?”

Such a scene is not impossible when the body is on static display, but it hasn’t happened yet, although Burbank was not the first to get the treatment from Charbonnet, who put the late musician Lionel Batiste on his feet in 2012. Batiste, quite the dandy in life, seems to have been easily the best dressed at his own funeral.

But Charbonnet was following in the footsteps of others. Friends and relations wishing to pay their respects to a Chicago hoodlum and gambler named Willie “Wimp” Stokes in 1984, for instance, found him sitting with his hands on the steering wheel of a mock-up Cadillac Seville that served as his coffin.

The New York Times reports that posing the dead in circumstances reminiscent of their earthly habits is all the rage in Puerto Rico, where one funeral home reports having done it six times. The only reason it has not happened more often, the director explained, is that “the people who have requested the funerals have not died yet.”

Perhaps there is another potential problem with the animatronic funeral. It won’t be so easy to tell who has died yet and who hasn’t. A mix-up would be most awkward, and a funeral director attempting to inter a mourner would be sued, for sure.

So this may not be such a good idea after all. Someone would probably complain it’s in poor taste anyway, although it may be a bit late for that.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this column inccorrectly credited Louis Charbonnet with arranging socialite Mickey Easterling’s funeral in New Orleans. It was done by Schoen Funeral Home.