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Today, Colombo, Sri Lanka

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Comic chaos follows a fun-fuelled funeral

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Everybody has to die. That is a universal fact. Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.  And after we die most of us have funerals. Now funerals are by and large sad occasions.  But some of them can also be hilarious.In similarity to the fragile divider between sanity and insanity, there is a very thin line between hysterical sadness and hysterical laughter. This line is crossed regularly at funerals.  In such circumstances the switch to hysterical laughter is never due to anything as a rule that is intentionally humorous.

Everyone is aware that Sri Lankans love festivals, even when the country is politically and economically insolvent. Colombo has always been a city ready to celebrate anything from funerals to weddings and fund-raising fairs which are all charged with the excitement of a carnival atmosphere. The hackneyed Sinhala saying,  Nava Gilunath Band Choon, might well have been inspired by the ill-fated musical ensemble aboard the foundering Titanic as its members resolutely played on to the last regardless of their predicament.

That is where the funeral bands, now called papara bands with their middle-aged minstrels are much sought after to perform the ‘tootooing’ on their horns accompanied by the tattooing drum beats with no flagging or sense of fatigue. I will never forget a funeral of a man named Don Peter who died at 98.  He was buried during a bucketing thunderstorm. There is that powerful feeling at certain funerals, such as old Don Peters’ that while everything is centered on a death, there is also this over-riding sense that life goes on. Such moods often create incredibly volatile, emotional situations, and that is why they become a natural breeding ground for comedy as well.

It started when an exhausted trombonist had emphatically lost his ‘oomph’ at the cemetery. He placed his unwieldy instrument on a handy headstone and leaned his weary bulk against the statue of a man-sized alabaster angel adorning an adjoining gravesite. For a couple of minutes the angel served as a convenient sustaining prop for the intoxicated musician whose legs were by now giving way under his massive frame. Then suddenly it seemed as if the stationary seraph had decided it was time to thrust aside its cuddling intruder and with a creak of cracking masonry came unhinged slowly from its lofty pedestal.

Now in similarity to a bizarre slow-motion replay the celestial representation with the manic musician still juxtaposed in a state of clinging embrace were thrust slip sliding along towards the principal mourners. Everything now seemed to be going outrageously downhill. Somewhere along the muddy pathway the slithering forms of the musician and the monument parted company.

The mud-smeared statue decelerated and braked sharply in mid-slide as it snagged against the intruding roots of a flame tree. But not so the hulking performer whose glissading momentum carried him smoothly past several motionless legs of the concourse and propelled him head-first into the yawning chasm of the open grave.

The funeral of the family patriarch had now turned into comic chaos as various dramas began unfolding to the amusement of the entire gathering. The uncontrolled mayhem and unfortunate mishaps ensuing on several fronts were building up to an incredibly hilarious climax. The muffled sobs of the widow and the grief-stricken shrieks of the rest of the female members of the family turned into hysterical giggles culminating into gales of unmitigated laughter.A pair of the deceased’s equally besotted twin nephews, totally averse to being upstaged in the tragi-comedy, plunged impetuously after the hapless trombonist into the cavernous quagmire that had been filling steadily with the lashing monsoon storm water. The twins’ melodramatic attempted rescue act had now compelled a backup salvage squad to move speedily into action in an attempt to extricate the sloshed trio from the watery grave.

However, duly aided with stout rope and additional muscle provided by the gravediggers and undertaker’s employees the three were finally exhumed from the infernal pit of interment. Never since the miracle of Lazarus did the spectacle of mud-splattered men arising from the grave inspire such spontaneously thundering applause by the mourners.In another of life’s delicious ironies funeral protocol was again about to take it on the chin. More was to come as Joe Don Peter and his brother Roland, the sons of the deceased, were about to contribute their own mordantly funny twist to the proceedings.

There was a whispered forewarning that Roland’s boss, the Managing Director of a local publishing empire, had been spotted hurrying his way to the gravesite to pay his belated respects. Roland had served the publishing firm for a good three decades and now held the enviable position as the Managing Director’s personal factotum.

To Roland’s befuddled mind the presence of his revered boss was the greatest honor which he imagined he should fittingly reciprocate. Unfortunately, Roland’s memory had deteriorated with age and the effects of alcohol. He glanced around, grabbed a conveniently placed wreath and tottered towards his approaching employer. Welcome, welcome my dear, darling sir, welcome, welcome,” piped Roland while at the same time attempting to garland his perplexed boss with the wreath.

The Managing Director kept backing away warily exclaiming: “Don Peter, Don Peter…behave yourself…Don…” But he was stopped in mid-sentence as Roland seemed doggedly determined to garland his boss come hell or high rain-water. His equally groggy brother Joe kept thrusting his hand out at the thunderstruck tycoon adding: “Don Peter ish dead…Our Father ish in Heaven. I am the corpshes other shon.”

Funeral wreaths are hardly designed as garlands to bedeck the necks of personages as an acknowledgement of welcome, particularly because they are held together with bits of crude wire and equipped with thin wooden stands to hold them upright. As such its forced thrusting over the unwilling Managing Director’s head was both painful and humiliating.       

The back-stepping magnate careered dangerously out of control and ended up sitting in a puddle of mud with the funeral wreath of anthuriums dangling askew over his head and neck. The thud of mud was heard being shoveled onto the half submerged coffin, as the band deemed it necessary to infuse more immediacy to the ceremony. And so in full swing they began another alcohol fuelled  medley of music beginning with a riotous rendition of ‘He’s A Jolly Good Fellow,’ followed by an equally inappropriate jingle titled ‘You Can’t Go to Heaven On Roller Skates ‘Cause You Gotta Pass St Peter’s Gates.’The crowd making their exit from the cemetery and on the way to the ‘malabatha,’ (wake) concurred that it had been a grand funeral. Old Don Peter, supposedly standing at the Pearly Gates, would surely have agreed.
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