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Book: Religion, Death and the Senses

Chapter: 16. 'It’s not Funny, is it?': Humour as a Coping Strategy Against Death by Funeral Workers in the UK

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.43889


I am writing this during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Where once it could be said that Funeral Rhetoric and Rituals change slowly and that folk in the Western World deal with death infrequently, the whole world has now been impacted; death has been in our face since the Corona virus outbreak begun. How then, do funeral providers, experiencing the second-hand grief of others deal with the pressure of their work? In my own involvement within the frontline services, humour has often been an important coping strategy, a safety valve in extremis. We use humour gently as ‘words against death’, or manifest it in an extreme form, as ‘gallows humour’. This latter, a veritable blast of humour, reactive, cathartic and as Critchley suggests ‘context specific’ can be a vital resource for death workers; Berger says, ‘black humour defies the tragic’. This chapter explores the way in which the different styles of humour may be used by funeral workers, as coping strategies against dealing with second-hand grief or difficult situations arising in the workplace. I speak generally as a funeral insider of many years, about the stresses at work and how important effective transcendent humour (sometimes very dark) has been to those of us on the ‘funeral frontline’ and how it has been used by workers even in ways that may appear to be totally inappropriate or offensive under the rules of normal and polite society. Humour such as this is vital, but by nature subversive and dangerous if not contained within a tight group as argot. Pass that bottle of Corona!

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