Families thinking outside box for wakes

By Rosa Prince in New York

Undertaker swamped with requests after clients posed doing things they enjoyed in life, not lying in coffin

Miriam Burbank attends her own wake.
Miriam Burbank attends her own wake.

It is known as a party town - and now even funerals are being turned into entertainment, as the residents of New Orleans put the fun back into funerals by thinking outside the box when it comes to their own wakes.

Last week, friends and family of Miriam Burbank, who died at the age of 53, requested that she attend her own service - which she duly did, sporting sunglasses and propped up at a table with a beer in one hand and a menthol cigarette in the other. After word of the unusual arrangement spread, funeral director Louis Charbonnet, who posed Burbank in his parlour, was inundated with calls from local people requesting that they too be helped to attend their own funeral in lifelike poses reflecting their characters.

Charbonnet said his 132-year-old establishment prided itself on putting the "fun" into funeral. "A couple of weeks ago we even had a mariachi band in here," he told the New York Times. While other local funeral directors, and even his own wife, accuse him of impropriety by placing corpses in positions many might consider amusing, Charbonnet said a local priest had given him the all clear. He considered it was respectful to abide by the requests of grieving family members.

He began offering his unusual service in 2012 after the death of Lionel Bastite, a band leader and local character who had told his friends he did not want people looking down at him at his funeral. At his service he was displayed standing with his hands on his walking stick wearing his beloved bowler hat.

In April, the family of Mickey Easterling, a prominent socialite, arranged for her to be viewed as if greeting guests to her funeral while sitting behind a bench in the lobby of a historic theatre. Her daughter Nancy said: "What my mother said to me some years ago was: 'I want to be at my own funeral having a glass of Champagne in one hand and a cigarette in the other'."

Charbonnet is not the first to pose cadavers in such a way. Earlier this year, the family of Ohio biker Billy Standley honoured his wish to be towed to a cemetery astride his customised Harley-Davidson. And in Chicago in 1984, a well-known gambler called Willie "Wimp" Stokes attended his funeral at the wheel of a coffin in the shape of a Cadillac Seville. Charbonnet said he was inspired by a recent craze for seating and standing corpses in Puerto Rico, which began in 2008 when the family of Angel Luis Pantojas, a 24-year-old murder victim, held his funeral in their living room with his body tethered to the wall - an event which became known as "muerto parao," or dead man standing.

It was followed two years later by a man who was dressed for his wake like Che Guevara, sitting cross-legged on the floor with a cigar in hand, and a deceased paramedic who was displayed behind the wheel of his ambulance. This year, 23-year-old shooting victim and boxer Christopher Rivera's robed body was viewed in a boxing ring, and an elderly woman, Georgina Chervony, was propped up in her rocking chair.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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