What A Way to Go: Fabulous Funerals of the Famous and Infamous
by Adele Q. Brown
Published by Chronicle
204 pages, 2002
Wave From the Grave
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
Salvador Dali was 84 when he passed away in 1989. After he died, he lay in state for 31 hours before his funeral while more than 20,000 mourners came to pay their final respects.
Marilyn Monroe was 36 when she died of a presumed suicide. Everyone knows this. What's less well known is that fewer than 35 people attended her funeral service on August 8, 1962. Her open casket was bronze and lined with champagne velvet and the star wore a simple green jersey dress and no jewelry.
When the Ayatollah Khomeini died of heart failure at the age of 89, some three million mourners came to witness his send off. Several of those mourners died in the melee that followed the funeral procession and journalists at the time estimate some 11,000 people were injured. Despite a military escort, mourners "grabbed idly at Khomeini's coffin, pulling it open and exposing the Ayatollah, rending his shroud and pulling their beloved patriarch to the ground."
What A Way to Go by Adele Q. Brown is the ultimate tool for morbid rubbernecking. Brown doesn't waste words on a simpering introduction: she spares no space on why she began this project or how it came to be. And while these details would have been interesting, their lack is noted and -- in a way -- appreciated. Brown doesn't apologize, but gets straight to business. Death is, after all, a delicate topic in our society. We spend a lot of time and energy avoiding thinking about it. Seldom do we meet it head on and we never stare it in the face. Yet here it is: a photographic image of that old Ayatollah being ravaged in his coffin has been included for our enlightenment. And Dali being photographed while lying in state in his casket. And a child in the arms of an old man while he takes a last peek at Babe Ruth. And a shrouded Marilyn Monroe being wheeled out of her bungalow.
While the photographs alone must have taken a great deal of work to collect, the facts Brown has included provide wonderful mini biographies on some of recent history's most intriguing people. Brown brings us 24 "Fabulous Funerals" in alphabetic order: launching off with Josephine Baker (age 68 in 1975 of cerebral hemorrhage in the same Paris hospital Princess Diana would die in 22 years later) and ending with Mao Zedong ("Chairman Mao" who died in 1976 at the age of 82 from an unconfirmed disease). In between are biographic tributes and funerary details on actress Sarah Bernhardt, British prime minister Winston Churchill, inventor Thomas Edison, muppeteer Jim Henson, princesses Grace and Diana, John F. Kennedy, rapper Notorious B.I.G. and others. It's an appropriately eclectic crowd for such a darkly eclectic book.
Each entry begins with a title page that includes a photo of the subject -- sometimes in life and sometimes not. Included here as well are the subject's best known nickname, birth and death dates and a quote appropriate to the topic at hand. (For instance, Babe Ruth's quote is: "I honestly don't know anybody who wants to live more than I do.")
The next page includes vital statistics -- age at death, cause, survivors and last known words (Franklin D. Roosevelt's final uttering was: "I have a terrific headache.") and then the biographic section that deals with the subject's life. From the "Life" section we move on to "Rites of Passage" that deals with dying and, finally, death itself. Typically "The Funeral" section that follows is as long as the "Life" section, but this is not inappropriate considering the nature of this book. The funeral is followed by a "News of the Day" section that lets us know what else was happening on the day so-and-so died: interesting stuff for the context it adds.
Brown has also included some fabulous connected facts. For instance, in the section on Edith Piaf, she lets us know that the artist Jean Cocteau died on the same day as the singer:
Upon hearing the news of his friend's death, he remarked, "I had a fever since this morning, and I must say that the death of Edith Piaf has caused renewed sadness and discomfort." A few hours later, Cocteau said, "The boat is going down." These were his last words.
While What Way to Go is not, by nature, a happy book, Brown has done an admirable job with the excellent material she uncovered. She manages to walk the delicate line between the tasteless and informative with surprising elegance. What emerges is a well-researched, interesting and sometimes even fun book. | January 2002
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.