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Of Corpse

Death and Humor in Folkore and Popular Culture

Peter Narvaez

Publication Year: 2003

Laughter, contemporary theory suggests, is often aggressive in some manner and may be prompted by a sudden perception of incongruity combined with memories of past emotional experience. Given this importance of the past to our recognition of the comic, it follows that some "traditions" dispose us to ludic responses. The studies in Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture examine specific interactions of text (jokes, poetry, epitaphs, iconography, film drama) and social context (wakes, festivals, disasters) that shape and generate laughter. Uniquely, however, the essays here peruse a remarkable paradox---the convergence of death and humor.

Published by: Utah State University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

I would like to voice my appreciation to some of the people who have made this book possible. First and foremost, I would like to thank the contributors for their continuing interest and patience. Michael Spooner, Director, Utah State University Press, has been supportive throughout the project ...

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INTRODUCTION: The Death-Humor Paradox

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pp. 1-12

In October 2002, after soliciting and critiquing over 40,000 jokes from seventy countries, Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire), in collaboration with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, proclaimed the “world’s funniest joke,” a narrative submitted by Gurpal Gosall (Manchester, UK): ...

PART ONE Disaster Jokes

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pp. 15-34

During the last forty years or so, “disasters”—such as a famine, an earthquake, the crashing of a plane, train, or spaceship, a multiple murder, or the sudden death of a celebrity—have tended to receive extensive, vivid, tear-jerking television coverage, often rapidly followed by a cycle of gruesome jokes. ...

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2 MAKING A BIG APPLE CRUMBLE: The Role of Humor in Constructing a Global Response to Disaster

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pp. 35-80

On the morning of September 11, 2001, terrorists associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida, a fundamentalist Islamic political movement, hijacked four American jetliners. Two were crashed into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, causing them to collapse with catastrophic loss of life. ...

PART TWO Rites of Passage

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3 CREATING SITUATIONS: Practical Jokes and the Revival of the Dead in Irish Tradition

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pp. 83-112

The playing of practical jokes1 involving the animation of corpses at wakes seems, at first encounter, to be a singularly bizarre practice, incongruous with its social context. Such amusements, however, were congruent with the behavioral norms of wakes as they were held in Ireland through the first half ...

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4 TRICKS AND FUN: Subversive Pleasures at Newfoundland Wakes

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pp. 113-139

Death used to be an integral part of life that united home and community, but today we deny it. Dying persons are routinely sequestered from the living in specialized hospital wards. Professionally trained morticians prepare cadavers to be “lifelike” for public display in funeral homes. Domestic funerary customs and rituals, ...

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5 "PARDON ME FOR NOT STANDING": Modern American Graveyard Humor

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pp. 140-168

My first impulse was to entitle this essay “Dead People Can Be Really Funny Sometimes.” After my friends suggested counseling, I abandoned the original plan in favor of the present title—though not without some regret, because there really was an important point buried within this seemingly insensitive frivolity. ...

PART THREE Festivals

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6 WISHES COME TRUE: Designing the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade

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pp. 171-197

The “striking florescence of celebration” in the modern world (Manning 1983, 4) is rapidly transforming both the physical topography of America and the annual holiday cycle of its citizens. Throughout the Midwest, for example, local communities seem almost frenetic in their creation of ethnic theme parks ...

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7 MAKING MERRY WITH DEATH: Iconic Humor in Mexico’s Day of the Dead

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pp. 198-220

Children eat sugar skulls with their names printed on the candied foreheads, public figures endure attacks with predictions of their impending demise, and papier-mâché skeletons appear, inviting the dead to live amongst us. These calaveras (literally “skulls,” but also used in reference to whole skeletons) walk the dog, ...

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8 CALAVERAS: Literary Humor in Mexico’s Day of the Dead

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pp. 221-238

In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler states that humor “must contain one ingredient whose presence is indispensable: an impulse, however faint, of aggression or apprehension” (1964, 52). This assertion, controversial in its time, provides a condensed reformulation of insights presented earlier by Freud (1973), ...

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9 EXIT LAUGHING Death and Laughter in Los Angeles and Port-au-Prince

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pp. 239-260

Let this essay on death and laughter begin as a tale of two cities: Los Angeles, California, where I live a few blocks from Hollywood Boulevard; and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where I conduct research on Vodou.1 Though they exist at opposite ends of an economic spectrum, both these extreme cities sustain singular lifestyles, ...

PART FOUR Popular Culture

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10 DANCING SKELETONS: The Subversion of Death Among Deadheads

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pp. 263-293

It was early the morning of August third, commonly known to Deadheads as “the day the music died.” Grabbing my bags, about to dash off to work, I heard one fragment of the morning radio news, something about Jerry Garcia—and heart failure. Immediately, my phone began to ring as panic-stricken ...

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pp. 294-310

The taboo against contamination from a dead body is one of the most profound of all socio-cultural inhibitions. I often find myself quite uncomfortable at funerals, knowing that contained within that box at the front of the chapel or synagogue lies what once was a living, breathing, or possibly even joking human being. ...


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pp. 311-334


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pp. 335-351


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pp. 352-353


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pp. 354-358

E-ISBN-13: 9780874214819
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874215595

Publication Year: 2003