Laughing at Funerals: What Makes Dark Comedy Films So Funny?


A Short Introduction

Why is death so funny? Sure, it’s horrible, sudden, and daunting, but that gravity just makes it more chaotic and hilarious. Death tends to be equal parts dramatic and comedic, hence the dark comedy genre in film. While terrible and sad, there are moments in the grieving process which are absolutely ridiculous, and you can’t help but laugh. I suspect laughing has more to do with how taboo death is in our culture, as no one wants to talk about it until they have to. This means that mourning often feels utterly disjointed and surprising, as everything stops and yet things continue. Coffee still needs to be made, bills need to be paid, and yet our world is different. Seeing decay can also be so off-putting that you can’t stop yourself from finding weird details between sobbing.

It’s fair to say that we laugh as a defense mechanism against bleak and uncomfortable existentialism. When things get too serious, or beyond our comprehension, we generally start laughing. It’s like an anti-Lovecraft response, as Lovecraft suggested that we go mad and become violent, or even shut down, when we encounter something so beyond us. If dark comedy films have proven anything it is that we don’t necessarily go mad, rather, we get silly. That kind of wordless silly of when you were a kid and you stayed up too late, and were so tired that anything became a joke, no matter how stupid it seemed after some sleep.

I think dark comedies have a therapeutic function, much like horror. They put a literal ‘dies’ in the word ‘comedies’ if you will. We go to horror films to deal with anxiety by getting it out of our system. Dark comedies function in a similar way, as they are also about death and our lack of control. Neither we nor the characters can stop death from happening, but we also can’t help but laugh, its like a gut impulse for when there isn’t anything else to do. While horror films generally kill off their antagonists at the end of the film, dark comedies cannot, as their main antagonist is the unexpected nature of death. However, what unites horror films with dark comedies is that each give the viewer a set of tools to use if they encounter such a situation. We know from watching horror films what you should not do if a killer is stalking you, for instance, don’t split up. Dark comedy films have taught us that it is ok to laugh occasionally, and that death is a very messy affair which everyone deals with. And so, they are both comforting in their own strange way. 

I am spending the rest of November unpacking some of my favourite dark comedies and examining how they explore death and the act of dying. I will also detail how films make it ‘ok’ to laugh at death while also acknowledging that it is a terrible and painful thing. This dynamic can be difficult to balance, but when it’s done well, a dark comedy can be both heartfelt and funny.

“Tea can do many things, Jane, but it can’t bring back the dead”

Take for instance the classic film Death at a Funeral (2007). I am referring to the original British version, but there was a remake done in 2010 with Chris Rock which I believe has the same plot. The film is a hilarious worst-case scenario, as everything that could go wrong does. This is introduced within the first few minutes of the film, as a hearse arrives with the wrong corpse. What makes this moment especially funny is the way it conducts human error. The funeral home didn’t mean to bring the wrong body, it didn’t do so out of vengeance, it was just an accident. The fact that accidents and little miscommunications continue to happen following such a monumental thing like death is hilarious. One might be solely focused on the deceased, but things move forward around you, and people don’t recognize that you are going through something severe. It might mean the world to you, but for everyone else, it’s Thursday.

What I particularly love about the film is its sincerity with death. Some of the other films I plan on mentioning in coming weeks are rather gory revenge tales which fixate on the moment of death. That is not the case in Death at a Funeral, as death has already happened. The death itself isn’t funny, but the way the family decomposes or breaks apart alongside the corpse is. In fact, the death mentioned in the film’s title never happens, which suggests that the so-called Death at a Funeral is more about the concept of death, and how frightening that eventuality is.

Each character tries to make a connection with someone to cope with what has happened. They go about this in different ways, and not every character wants a human connection, some want a financial kind. Regardless, these characters feel like they must defend their relationship with the deceased to seem worthy enough to mourn and receive sincere condolences. One figure uses the eulogy to show up his famous author brother. Another comes to the funeral to flirt with a woman he once dated. And a third, played by the incredible Peter Dinklage, arrives to blackmail the family by showing pictures of his relationship with the deceased. As you might have noticed, none of these things have anything to do with the dead person, however, the characters use death as an excuse for their behaviour. Because death upturns each of the characters’ worlds, they think that everything has changed, and that they can similarly change their lives, or the way people see them. That is not the case, as things are the same despite this tragic event. The brother cannot outshine his author sibling. The guy who came to the funeral to rekindle a relationship is immediately shot down. It is a bit like going on vacation and then realizing that you are the same person just in a new location. Sure, things look different, but you are still not going to be comfortable in a bikini, that hasn’t changed.

The characters eventually learn to let go, not just of the deceased but also of the little things that don’t really matter. Most of the conflict in the film comes from characters trying to ‘solve’ issues without anyone noticing. They want the funeral to go smoothly and show off a specific version of the deceased, one which they can manipulate for their own needs. They might not be able to control death, but they can control the appearance of death, and the legacy of the deceased. At least, that is what they thought before everything starts to go awry, and the deceased’s past arrives at the funeral. It’s noteworthy that every incident in the film is initially started by the character’s lack of control but then made even worse by their attempts to hide that lack of control. Things accumulate until they finally erupt, and everything comes out into the open, even the corpse. But the film suggests that this is the healthiest version of a funeral. Mourning an image of a person isn’t the same as mourning the person, and whatever faults they came with. It is only after the characters admit what has been happening, and deal with the consequences, that they can connect with one another. The brothers reunite after trying to murder a man. Someone announces that they are pregnant. Life grows because of death, and that is what I am interested in discussing for the following month.