Laugh In Peace

If you cast your mind back to last Friday’s column (I know: you worked so hard to forget it, but be brave; this will be over soon) you will recall my hunt through my inventory of elderly postcards in quest of Halloween-related images.  This was very nearly fruitless, but on the way, I did notie that our ancestors did occasionally give in to a morbid stream of humor.

     The Cemetery lady said it often enough, that Death was the new Pornography.  We don’t like to think about it or be reminded it exists, but our ancestors handled things differently, putting up huge signs and symbols around their houses when there was a death in the family, and holding a big a funeral as they could afford.  Deathbed photos were a valued family possession (Queen Victoria had a massive collection, they tell me) and there were even postcards with post-mortem photos of the late lamented.  (I have a couple of those, but I will spare you.  And, after all, how do I know these aren’t just people who owned really uncomfortable beds?)

     If that weren’t enough, our ancestors were very big on the Memento Mori school of motivational verse.  The postcard at the top of this column symbolizes it: you’re going to die, so don’t waitr around until the time is right to get the job done.  From what I’ve seen of these, this image was actually considered pretty funny: college kids apparently sent them to each other on a regular basis.

     There was also a considerable literature on the subject of the Funny Tombstone.  You should have heard the Cemetery Lady on THAT subject.  She had nothing against a bit of humor on a grave marker, but she objected very much to undocumented epitaphs, most of which, she said, were patently fake.  I have not looked up this one to make sure it existed.  But the card does.

         She had no objection to a good pun, and might have found THIS postcard worthy of inclusion in her postcard collection.   Have a feeling, though, that nothing like it would have appeared in postcard racks in the drugstore in my boy days.  They might have sold it, but possibly at some counter at the back of the store.  By my day, jokes involving caskets would have been considered “sick humor”, and would have cited it as evidence of the degeneration of young people ion the modern world.

     And this sort of gag would only have appeared in underground comic books in my boy days.

     This would have been decried as evil propaganda, and a plot against the American tobacco industry.  (One of my heroes wrote in a column that his generation knew cigarettes were dangerous in the 1940s.  “Why do you think we called them coffin nails?”  This card dates to before that, even.)

     While this joke would never be published today at all: just because a previous generation thought it was funny doesn’t mean it’s permissible today.

     It isnIn fact, death was perfectly acceptable, as we have seen in previous columns, if it involved certain habits.

     By and large, though, the post-World War II generation, having gone through periods of mass-produced death, preferred to ignore that part of life.  When they considered such things at all, they went straight to considering the afterlife, and how it would look to those who encountered it.

     Besides considering the rewards which awaited those who had suffered in life.

     An earlier generation told jokes about the afterlife, too, but postcard sellers of the Fifties would never have accepted this pre-war vision.

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