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Colson: From San Juan to Big Easy, death gets a makeover

with John Colson

Leave it to the Puerto Ricans and the New Orleaneans to come up with this one.

Picking up the Sunday New York Times last weekend, I saw that the front page (below the fold) carried a photo of a black woman from New Orleans sitting at a table with a beer next to one hand and a cigarette perched between two fingers of her other hand.

Odd story placement, I thought, but then I looked more closely.

She sported a pair of dark shades on her face, even though she obviously was seated at an indoor table, but that’s cool, kind of the Big Easy way of looking at the world, night or day, inside or out.

Here’s where it got strange, though.

She was dead, at the relatively young age of 53, and the headline of the article was “Rites of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life.”

Say what?!

Turns out a funeral home in New Orleans has been fielding requests from people who want to know, according to the story, “how they might avoid lying down at their own funeral.”

The woman on the Times’ front page, Miriam Burbank, apparently spent a lot of time sitting at that same table, with a butt in one hand and a beer in the other, and that’s how her family wanted to remember her.

OK by me. Whatever blows your skirt up.

But I have to ask, isn’t this just a bit much, even in our stressed-out times?

I mean, we had a movie back in 1968 with a very similar-sounding title, “Night of the Living Dead,” so was this some kind of April Fools’ riff on that classic horror film?

It could be, especially on the part of the headline writer, who probably wasn’t born at the time of the original but may have been around for the 1990 remake. And as any working journalist can tell you, copy-desk editors (who typically write the headlines) can be a pretty twisted bunch.

Certainly, Burbank herself might have seen the original at her hometown theater, even though she would have been only about 7 years old.

But, as film critic Roger Ebert noted at the time, there was no movie-rating system yet, and kids that young were known to have seen it when it came out. They’d demonstrably been scared out of their wits and likely ended up mentally scarred for life.

In fact, it could be that our recent crop of crazy killings (at schools, in the theater, at a military base) can be traced back to that long-ago movie viewing. Impressionable youngsters, massively terrified by the scenes of wandering zombies, might have grown into deeply troubled, anxious adults whose fears lead them (or their own kids) to commit the very same kinds of acts those zombies were committing.

Whaddaya think? Grounds for a class-action lawsuit against George Romero, the filmmaker who brought us the “Living Dead” series (six films in all, stretching to 2009)? What about criminal charges, such as “depraved indifference” (look it up)?

Moving right along, my spousal unit, equally startled by the story about the “sitting dead,” wondered if it’s some kind of throwback to the way the ancient Egyptians buried their kings, pharaohs and other high-and-mighties.

Well, maybe. But the Egyptians packed their royal tombs with the accumulated wealth of dynasties so the dead wouldn’t be poor when they reached the other side of the River Styx.

That doesn’t seem to be the case here, although the story did mention a biker who was buried in a clear Plexiglas cube astride his favorite Harley-Davidson motorcycle, presumably so he could deafen his neighboring angels or demons with his unmuffled exhaust.

As for the genesis of this “sitting dead” phenomenon, seems it started in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place where demented things have long been known to happen.

In 2008, a man was murdered and his family held a viewing at home, with the man, Angel Luis Pantojas, propped in a corner on his feet. The family dubbed the event “muerto parao,” or “dead man standing” — another play on a movie title.

So, this is what I think. The human race has been completely dimmed out, mentally speaking, by “reality” television, insipidly “safe” art, deliberately uninquisitive media and over-the-top violence in movies.

Always frightened by death, we’ve decided it should look just like life so we can stand easier when we get sloshed at the funeral.

If the dear departed looks, more or less, just as he or she did in life, well, maybe he or she is not really dead!

So, when our time comes, maybe the rest of us won’t really die, either!

And if you clap loudly enough, Tinkerbell will be revived and save Peter Pan from the pirates, and all will be well.

jbcolson51@gmail.com


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