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Courtesy Cave Hill Cemetery
Magician Harry Collins has a life-sized tribute in death in this Louisville, Ky., cemetery.

Putting some life in the afterlife

Rituals of death loosen over time

Enough about SpongeBob SquarePants, you say? Probably right. But give the popular poriferan his due: the controversy over the headstone carved in his image has gotten all of us to muse a little how we memorialize our loved ones.

When I was a boy, funerals, besides being sad, always seemed to be pretty stuffy affairs.

At the visitations, children sat and looked uncomfortable in their dress-up clothes, and adults gathered in groups and talked in low tones. The minister said something about what a good churchgoer the deceased was and how he or she had found peace now and we all should be really happy for them.

Nowadays, funerals often turn into storytelling fests, with friends and family members spending more time at the pulpit than the clergyman or clergywoman. Sometimes the storytellers make the other mourners laugh, and sometimes they make everyone cry. It’s not precise and professional, but it seems to get the job done – people share their feelings and remember some of the good times.

Once, at the funeral of a man who died tragically in the prime of life, a friend talked about how much the deceased loved to tell funny stories and told the joke his late friend had told the last time they were together. It was a funny joke, but that didn’t account for the roar that emerged from the crowd. They were laughing in relief, as though the punchline had punctured the cloud of sorrow, at least for a moment.

Maybe there are people at that kind of memorial service thinking, “This is wholly inappropriate. The departed and their family should receive the kind of respect that a dignified, traditional service conveys.”

And maybe those are the same people who were moved to protest the presence of a 6-foot 8-inch headstone of SpongeBob in military gear on the grave of an Iraq war veteran in a cemetery in Cincinnati.

To those who were offended by that headstone – the cemetery removed it after it had been up for a day – the line is clearly drawn. You may get away with a joke or two at the funeral, but there is no place for frivolity or fun when you’re in a place of burial.

Or is there?

Staff writer Vivian Sade reported Friday that, at the deceased’s request, Archie Arnold’s gravestone in Scipio Cemetery in Harlan is flanked by two “expired” parking meters. Ron Stanley, owner of R&T Monuments in Kendallville, told Sade his company put a likeness of SpongeBob on a child’s headstone at the family’s request.

And there is a long tradition of clever parting remarks etched on headstones, particularly in the early American West.

In Boot Hill Cemetery, for instance, on the grave of a Wells Fargo agent:

Here lies Lester Moore.

Four slugs from a 44

no Les, no more.

In a New Jersey cemetery, a headstone is said to display these lines:

Beneath this stone, a lump of clay,

Lies stingy Jimmy Wyatt

Who died one morning just at ten

And saved a dinner by it.

And on the grave of the great comedian Rodney Dangerfield:

There goes the neighborhood.

SpongeBob’s rejection also made me think of a headstone in stately Cave Hill Cemetery, in Louisville, Ky., that is just down the hill from where my parents are buried.

It stands over the grave of a magician named Harry Collins, who died in 1985. Collins used his magic act to promote Frito-Lay Corp. products and was known as the Frito Magician, but there is nary a corn chip visible at his gravesite. In fact, the memorial is a life-sized image of the conjurer, conjuring.

When we visited Cave Hill when my children were small, we would have to stop at that headstone on the way up the hillside.

The image of a dead magician beckoning to you in front of a mysterious, shrouded box is the kind of thing one can stare at for a long time, especially if you are a small child on your way to lay flowers on Grandpa and Grandma’s grave.

(If Collins’ headstone looks familiar, you may have seen the camera linger on it in a scene in the movie “Elizabethtown,” which takes place in that cemetery.)

Perhaps Collins, or his family, wanted to send a little chill up your spine. Dangerfield wanted you to have one more laugh with him. Lots of men have stopped wearing ties to work, and Hollywood stars seem to be most commonly photographed wearing sweatsuits and tennis shoes. Things are loosening up in every corner of life.

Given that, who are we to tell the dead how they should be honored?

Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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