As part of the Death Project I wanted to include some of my favorite funeral scenes from movies. On the following pages, I’ve identified five scenes that have resonated with me over the years. I’m not saying these are the only funeral movie scenes worth talking about, but they’re among my favorites — ones that I’ve watched for their emotional gut shot or their ability to make me laugh.
Music plays a central role in many funerals in life and music plays its part here as well. As I researched great funeral scenes, I turned away, for the most part, from showy speeches. Sure, a few made it on here, but the movie moments I responded to the most were ones that cut straight through to the heart (or the funny bone) with song. As you watch the clips, notice the role music plays to heighten the mood and strike the perfect note.
Another thing that stood out to me was the element of surprise in these scenes. They begin by taking us in one direction, often one of grieving, but then flip that emotion to one of joy, laughter and celebration.
Please note that if you haven’t seen one of the movies on this list and you do plan to see it some day, this is your friendly spoiler alert. Now go laugh, cry, enjoy.
As the film opens, a man in a business suit and a fedora stands near the corner of Royal and Dumaine in the French Quarter. He’s casing a restaurant named Fillet of Soul as a jazz band marches closer to him, inching in his direction in that staggered gait of the Dixieland funeral march. The band is almost upon him, playing the dirge, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” when he asks a fellow bystander,” Who’s funeral is it?” In a chilling response, the second man opens a switchblade and says, “Yours.” The pallbearers then creep over his body, and, after he disappears inside the coffin, the band bursts into the joyful tune, “Second Line.”
The scene reveals a subtle deftness that so many James Bond movies, which rely on kinetic energy and pyrotechnics, lack. While the overall film doesn’t stand up as well, the funeral march remains the best opening scene in the James Bond canon.
In pure dramedy fashion, this funeral scene perfectly captures the madness of grief. M’Lynn Eatenton (Sally Field) has suffered a loss no parent should experience — the loss of a child. Whatever censors she had are gone. She’s thinking out loud, ranting and thrashing about at the universe’s cruel joke. Some of what she says isn’t logical, such as talking about jogging from Louisiana to Texas, but it all makes sense because, in a moment like this, no answers are satisfactory. In a moment like this, all you want to do is scream.
Just as the melodrama peaks, the scene does something unexpected; it spins the mood back to comedy, delivering a figurative and literal punch line that will whip you from tears to laughter.
William Shatner, who reads every line of dialogue as if he were playing Hamlet, finally gets a scene worthy of his Shakespearean aspirations as he provides a eulogy at Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy’s) funeral. With lips quivering and voice breaking, Kirk (Shatner) delivers the great line, “Of all the souls I’ve encountered, his was the most … human.”
At that point, the pod carrying Spock is slowly (really slowly) set on a conveyor belt and trundled out to a rocket launcher as Scotty (James Doohan) plays ceremonial bagpipes. Once he’s fired into infinity and beyond the pod explodes, becoming a supernova. It’s corny and kitschy and way over the top, but for Trekkies around the globe it’s the perfect “burial” in space.
A very funny movie becomes heart wrenching as it delivers the most poetic of movie funeral scenes because it hinges on the words of a poet. Using this device, of resorting to poetry at a funeral, could have turned the scene to saccharine, but Matthew’s (John Hannah’s) reading of the W. H. Auden poem, “Funeral Blues” is tender and understated.
He stands in front of the congregation and says, “Perhaps you will forgive me as I turn from my own feelings to another splendid bugger, W. H. Auden. This is actually what I want to say.” You can read the entire poem online, but here is a favorite stanza:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
Perhaps the best representation of the magic of movies is found in animated films, though the technology of CGI is quickly closing the gap, making that something of a moot point. For me, though, animation continues to deliver a magical quality. I see it in the eyes of my daughter when we’re at the movies and I remember it from my own childhood. That idea of recapturing our past is wonderfully conveyed in this scene as Carl (Ed Asner) returns to an empty home after the loss of his wife. He doesn’t speak. We only hear his defeated sigh as he looks to the vacant chair next to his.
Then he opens “My Adventure Book,” a photo album his wife had kept since childhood. A shift in mood strikes us. We think he’ll lament that he let his wife down, that he never allowed her to experience grand adventures. However, when he opens the book, we see through images and song that she lived a full life, one centered on being married to Carl. He’s shocked at the revelation; we are, too.
As Carl turns the pages, the plaintive piano chords of “Married Life” by Michael Giacchino, begins. If the lump in the throat isn’t there yet, it will be when Carl gets to the last page where his late wife has transcribed, “Thanks for the adventure — Now go have a new one! Love, Ellie.”
For more on The Death Project, visit LifeHealthPro.com/DeathProject