I first met Judy Phillips when she returned to Michigan after “wintering” in Florida. In March, Ron Apple and I visited her. We thought she had celebrated a birthday recently so Ron asked, “Wasn’t your birthday a few days ago?”
“Yes,” responded this tiny lady with a bright smile.
“Well, how old are you now?” he asked.
Her smile fell to a dead-pan glare. As she waved a finger at him Judy said, “Oh, you should know that you never ask a lady her age.”
Ron rocked back into his chair like a third-grader reprimanded by his teacher. We had thought that a lady over ninety-years-old wouldn’t be sensitive about her age.
After she saw the shock register on our faces and listened to the momentary silence, she laughed.
“I’m ninety-one years old,” Judy said, smiling wider than before. She hooked us and she knew it!
Over the next year I became familiar with Judy’s witty, joyful personality. When she died and the family asked me to share at the funeral, I began collecting my thoughts and memories of Judy. Because of Judy’s personality, many of the tales about her were humorous. I wondered how I was going to share these details when people might laugh out-loud during the funeral message.
Would people be offended and think that I was taking their loss lightly? Or that for me funerals were trite? Or even that I was disrespectful to the deceased and grieving family?
I knew that omitting the amusing stories and her witty statements would leave a huge void in our memories of Judy. Funerals are a time to remember what the deceased meant to us. In large measure Judy meant humor and joyfulness to us. I could not avoid humor in her funeral message.
At the beginning of the message the funeral director disappeared into his office. I began Judy’s profile with the birthday story. When he heard the laughter, the director returned. He may have wondered if a verbal mistake had prompted the laughter; then he heard the next story.
“Judy and Bill often had Christian friends over after Sunday evening worship for a snack. One evening they invited Ben and Lois Graham to come with Lois’ parents, Vanness and Laura Cook. Judy made pancakes for everyone but she had a lot of trouble with them sticking to the griddle. And everyone agreed silently that ‘these don’t taste very good.’ The next morning Judy realized that she had used wallpaper paste for the pancake batter. That night Judy’s pancakes gave a whole new meaning to ‘stick to your ribs’.”
At Judy’s funeral, people laughed and cried. The director stood and listened to the whole message and later told me how much he enjoyed listening to Judy’s stories. Her joy had touched him, too.
Funeral Humor — Balm or Bomb?
Judy’s funeral and others have taught me that humor is not a funeral taboo, as I had once thought. Actually I learned that laughter can become a part of healing. After all, Proverbs 17:22 reveals that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (NASB).
Humor in a funeral can be a balm or a bomb — a healing salve or a painful stab. Healing humor comes intrinsically from the personal stories, but humor hurts if it is a joke “to ease the tension of the audience or speaker.” Jokes appear crass or trite to the mourners. By humor I’m not suggesting that you take a Pearly Gates joke (of someone standing before Gabriel) then rewriting it with the deceased as the main character.
Suggestions for Sharing Humorous Stories
At best, using humor in a funeral is a judgment call. When you appraise humorous accounts for a funeral, consider these five items: your knowledge of the family and the deceased, the humorous stories the family shared, the funny tales the deceased told about him/herself, humorous accounts from your relationship with the deceased, and amusing reports by the deceased’s friends.
Knowing the family and the deceased. To a large degree, selecting humor for a funeral is intuitive. Therefore the more familiar you are (or become) with the family the easier it is to know what details to share — especially when it comes to humorous accounts.
With some families humor would not be acceptable, like when the relationship with the deceased was a painful or bitter one. But for many people humor is a natural part of their lives. When I prepared my Grandfather Atkins’ funeral message I could not avoid how his humor had affected our relationship with him.
“Grandpa loved to visit people, especially family. And he usually arrived unannounced. I thought maybe it was a recent trait but I learned otherwise. My aunts and uncles said that when they were young Grandpa would load them into the car and drive to someone’s home for a visit — without calling ahead.
“And if they weren’t home he would …. I can tell from your laughter that he did that to you too.
“If they weren’t home he would move around some porch or lawn furniture so you would wonder, ‘Who did this? Some prankster or juvenile delinquent? No, just Grandpa again!
“Grandpa and Vi would just drop in on you like you had ‘nothing else to do.’
“Grandpa’s last unannounced visit came in June 1988. When they stopped to see us there was no one home and no lawn furniture to move around — we were gone; two days before we had moved to Iowa!”
Humorous Stories from the Family. To use humor you need not know the deceased’s family as well as you know your own. When minister Loran Miracle visited with Bernice Murphy’s family before the funeral they shared how Bernice and her husband resolved their fights. When he became upset with her, he would go to the basement and play “I Wish I Was Single Again.” When she got angry enough to confront him, and he heard her coming down the stairs, he would play “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.”
During the interview with the family, never seek out humorous stories. Wait for the family to volunteer them. Never ask, “Do you have any funny stories about your dad?” But ask for more details if someone’s comment brings a chuckle from the family.
Funny Tales the Deceased Told About Him/Herself. One of the safest places to get funny stories about the deceased are ones that they told about themselves.
Judy Phillips had told this account of “if the shoe fits …”
“Judy’s life illustrated that you reap what you sow. If you sow good, pleasant thoughts, you’ll reap the benefit and joy of a positive attitude. It’s what the Bible mentions when it says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ Judy even told stories about the silly things she did. Once she was at church and her feet hurt. When she looked under the pew she found she had two right shoes on. Different colored shoes at that!”
Humorous Accounts from Your Relationship with the Deceased. Occasionally you’ll have humorous stories from your experiences with the deceased. Like this one which shows the deceased’s response to a funny situation:
“Dick enjoyed teaching young people and watching them enjoy new experiences. But sometimes there were mishaps.
“Dick taught many young people how to snowmobile, and among his later students were my two sons. My youngest son, Andrew, was only eleven years old on his first snowmobile-driving experience. He did well until we came to a small trail with tight curves and huge oak trees. After he got a distance behind the others he hurried to catch up, and took one sharp corner too quickly. Only then did he realize that snowmobiles don’t climb three-foot-diameter oak trees!”
Amusing Reports from Neighbors and Friends. Sometimes funny anecdotes will come from people other than family members and the humor will depend on an embarrassing mistake or action of the deceased. In such cases either omit the account or ask the family if you should use it.
The day before Judy Phillips’ funeral I visited Ben and Lois Graham, when Lois shared Judy Phillips’ pancake/wallpaper paste story. Because I thought it was somewhat embarrassing, I told the story to Judy’s daughter and asked for permission to use it in the funeral service. She agreed, so I shared it.
One last bit of advice about funeral humor: when in doubt, ask the family.

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