I was thinking about funeral scenes recently, and I realized the best rarely elicit the same effect an actual funeral is meant to. The best funeral scenes in movies and television provide no catharsis. These scenes avoid the absolute existential terror that death presents, as well as the pure heartwarming feeling that a group of grieving loved ones can create, in order to create something else, something uncomfortable but compelling.
Why do scenes like these resonate? It may just be that the heartwarming stuff and the terror we feel at funerals don’t translate to narrative very often, and they happen very rarely in life. But that gross, uncomfortable feeling of not knowing whether to laugh or cry, which also happens at funerals, happens pretty much every day, as well. Each of the following scenes is funny, but the humor works so well because the dead characters are all rendered with some degree of actual tenderness — the works never mock the deceased.
These clips are ordered from least spoiler-y to most spoiler-y, but since the scenes are emotionally ambivalent, knowing about any of these character deaths shouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of any of the following works. The order is: Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, The Big Lebowski, The Sopranos, and The Wire.
The Kids in the Hall – Reg
My favorite line in this sketch might be the remark that while Reg’s hair was “always perfect,” “you never saw him with a comb.” The characters say such perfectly typical things about the memory of their friend, but it is also revealed they murdered him for no apparent reason. As with a lot of these scenes, that kind of callousness provides a weird relief. The sketch almost takes you to the abyss, then reveals it’s just kidding.
Saturday Night Live – Bill Brasky
This sketch might not hold up after the 2000s explosion of hyperbole-based humor exemplified by Chuck Norris jokes and The Most Interesting Man in the World, except for the folksy-poetic nature of some of the dialogue (“He taught me how to love a woman, and how to scold a child”) and the timing of the mourners’ embarrassing confessions. It’s worth noting that so far 100% of these scenes have featured Mark McKinney, the mourner on the left in this sketch and one of the Kids in the Hall.
Seinfeld – Susan
The actual funeral scene in this storyline is very brief, but this video encapsulates the rest of the storyline: hapless George Costanza insists on buying cheap envelopes for invitations to a wedding he has reservations about, and his fiancee dies from licking the envelopes, which turn out to be toxic. It’s great because the comically self-absorbed characters have to deal with mortality, but also because the show itself, built on the maxim “no hugging, no learning,” soldiered on with funny beats in the face of death, and the effect is more powerful, in a weird way, than if hugging or learning occurred.
The Big Lebowski – Donny (language NSFW)
Like the death of Susan on Seinfeld, Donny’s fate at the end of The Big Lebowski lends gravity to the characters’ bumbling, if only briefly. If Seinfeld is a “show about nothing,” in which nobody learns anything, The Big Lebowski, like many of the Coen brothers’ films, is similarly existential: by the end, nothing is accomplished, and The Dude’s and Walter’s comical meddling has led only to the death of their bowling buddy. Walter knows so little about his friend that he starts ranting about Vietnam in the middle of the eulogy he gives, as if for lack of material. Also like Seinfeld, the friends go back to doing what they’d always done. This clips omits the scene’s final line, “F— it, dude. Let’s go bowling.”
The Sopranos – Livia
Early in the third season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano’s emotionally abusive mother Livia dies. The show killed her off because Nancy Marchand, the actress who played her, passed away, but Livia’s death allows the show to continue to emphasize its theme of peoples’ inability to change or find closure. Marchand gets one final scene via an awkward use of old footage, something the show could not have gotten away with if they attempted a touching sendoff for Livia. In this clip, Tony’s protege Christopher goes off on a stoned tangent about Livia, but trails off at “What I’m trying to say is…” He, too, has trouble finding meaning in any of this.
The Wire – D’Angelo Barksdale (language NSFW here also, but what are you doing watching YouTube videos at work without headphones? You have to at least pretend to work)
D’Angelo, a sympathetic character on the criminal end of things in The Wire, is killed in prison by an associate of his own gang. Bodie, a member of his crew, is tasked with finding an appropriately gangster flower arrangement for his funeral, and he succeeds. This scene is The Wire at its wry best, juxtaposing social convention with criminality, and showing Bodie’s complexity: he does all this grudgingly and with little respect for D’Angelo, but ultimately comes up with a fitting tribute.
A lot of these scenes take on the absurdity of life and death, even hinting that some of the more grim aspects of existence are senseless and meaningless. This makes them funny, but also depressing. Here are some things we can learn from the emotionally-ambivalent funeral scene, though: Be ready to honor someone’s memory at any time. That means thinking generally good thoughts about people and hanging on to those thoughts, even if it’s hard to. Conversely, and this may seem obvious, live a life that will make people want to memorialize you when you’re gone, and avoid the kind of people who wouldn’t care in the end. What I’m really trying to say is: stay away from the George Costanzas of the world. You might need a Walter in your life at some point, though.