Thursday, June 2, 2011

Celebration of a Life: A Clown's Funeral

Funeral services are often billed as “celebrations” of the life of the person who has died. Usually this billing is a bit misleading. While the eulogy often includes fond reflections about the deceased, there is a sober tone to the proceedings that one doesn’t typically associate with celebrations. There is weeping. There is grieving. The service is a ritual of closure and farewell. The lost loved one is remembered and honored, and occasionally an anecdote inspires a chuckle among those who knew the person well.

“Memorialization” seems a better label than “celebration” for what is going on. And more often than not, memorialization is precisely what is called for, what the grieving family needs most. Perhaps they aren’t yet ready to celebrate, or perhaps—given who the person was—a celebration just isn’t the best way to say goodbye.

But some people live lives that cannot help but influence the character of their funeral. And sometimes the legacy is one that is best memorialized with laughter. So it was with my wife’s uncle, Otis—called Gunkle by my wife and children, and “Jingles” by those who knew him best in his role as a professional clown.

Since I already talked about Otis on this blog—shortly after his passing a few weeks ago—I won’t repeat my account of his life here. But for those who appreciated hearing about his life, I thought it might be fitting to share just a few anecdotes from the event that marked his passing from this life.

Apparently, it is traditional for clowns to attend the funeral of one of their own dressed as clowns. And Otis was one of their own. This funeral was not just for Otis Hornish, beloved uncle and great uncle, rugged adventurer, and friend. This was also the funeral for Jingles the Clown.

Not all of his clown colleagues came in full clown attire. Some only wore token gestures to the trade, such as a comical tie. But half a dozen did indeed walk into the chapel in oversized shoes, colorful rags, funny hats, and red-ball noses. My children, of course, were delighted.

Well… “of course” might not be quite appropriate. After all, clowns—like snakes and spiders—are an object of a very basic, instinctive human terror. I mean, imagine Bozo wandering into an ancient Greek fishing village. There’d be screaming, people hurling themselves into the Mediterranean to escape the horror. “Run!” mothers would cry to their children while fathers armed themselves with sticks and clubs, preparing to face down the monstrosity in their midst.

But in my kids’ case, having a beloved great uncle who was a clown helped to mitigate this natural aversion. And, of course, in the last few hundred years at least some of the instinctive human fear of clowns has been—like the fear of tigers—muted by their association with circuses and carnival events.

I’m teasing, of course. While some people do profess a fear of clowns, the clowns at Otis’s funeral would be unlikely to inspire fear (well, except for one, whom I was eyeing nervously for most of the afternoon). “Whimsical” is perhaps the best term to describe the unique gathering.

In the period just prior to the service itself, a number of people were milling about in the foyer outside the chapel where the service would be held—including my family and several clowns. One of the clowns—a sad-eyed hobo clown, approached my kids skittishly, holding out stickers for them as if afraid they might reject him. His performance, and the stickers, brought smiles but no fear. Another clown, a slovenly tribute to superheroes (with Superman’s “S” on his breast just above his pronounced pot belly), approached the hobo clown and took his hand in a wildly exaggerated handshake that went on and on, expressing a bizarre mix of earnest self-importance and buffoonery. The hero clown then came forward to shake my son’s hand.

The hobo clown felt compelled, at that point, to give the hero clown some unsolicited clowning advice—about how and when to approach children so as to respect their boundaries and not be a source of anything other than delight.

The slouching hero clown took offense. He muttered something about having been a clown for years, then stomped off into the chapel in his oversized shoes.

It was about as funny as anything I’ve seen in my life, and I’m still trying to decide if the final part of the performance was an act or not.

After the service, the clowns did what clowns do best. And that, of course, is to make balloon animals—and balloon flower bouquets, and balloon hats. My son and daughter were soon festooned in colorful creations. My daughter then turned to the task of pressing all the stickers she’d received onto the swollen abdomen of a pregnant relative.

I thought to myself, “Otis would love this.” And then I thought, “He does love this.” Because Otis—Jingles—was here. His spirit prevailed over this place, this gathering in his honor and his memory.

1 comment:

  1. Reading this was the realism from part of my life. I, being one of the lucky ones to have him as family and friend, was shown the blessing he bestowed on those he knew and loved. I told Tanya that God had his clown with him now and that was the smile for me. Thank you Eric for examining a very special person's life!