Where would we be without a sense of humour?

Charles Cowling


It’s an old Willie Rushton joke.

And of course there’s no truth in it whatever.

I have been contacted by a Year 12/13 student in Germany. Her name is Julia and she is working on a project which I want you to help her with – if you can.

Julia’s working title is “How the British mock death”. She says: I will analyse the black humour in the film ‘Death at a Funeral’ and explain why the British like black humour so much.

Moreover I found a book, called ‘the British Museum book of epitaphs: awful ends’. In this book the author points out that the British tend to have no respect for the dead. On the gravestone of a dentist for instance is written: ‘Stranger, approach this spot with gravity! John Brown is filling his last cavity.’ Are such macabre sayings really the rule in England?

Julia suspects that in everyday life we are as serious as Germans. But: In art the English do tend to have an anarchic approach to death, because the British sense of humour is anarchic.

Please would you help Julia by suggesting sources of good, British funeral humour, and black humour generally. Can you offer her some insights into the national psyche? If you understand Germans, can you point out how they and the British differ and agree in these matters?

Thank you!


12 thoughts on “Where would we be without a sense of humour?

  1. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    Although not entirely British, the “Darwin Awards” spring to mind… Where evolution meets the pavement. We had a fine example of this last weekend at our Delliefure natural burial ground. We held a working party for friends and families to clear woodland. To keep the kids entertained we put on outdoor activities including crafting DIY catapults. As the group were testing their new creations with various sized stones, we noticed a boy standing, William Tell style, right in front of them judging the weapons’ effectiveness. Needless to say, that wasn’t on our risk assessment for the day! A fine candidate for a Darwin Award.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Charles, I love the expression ’emotional continence’ – its opposite cannot be similarly expressed without the most disgusting images!!

    Yet, yet… I do believe we suppress our emotions even at a funeral rite, which really could be an opportunity to make good use of them with each others’ support. How often do you see someone even briefly sob and immediately apologize? My own theory is that the grieving ritual is not long enough; it is confined to the twenty minutes at the crem, instead of the weeks or even months around the death, and we’re only too aware that others will remember our nakedness when we’re supposed to have got dressed again, and applied a fresh coat of starch to our upper lip, before we reach the flower terrace.

    When one breaks down at the funeral, it doesn’t work because we’d all have to do it to make it socially acceptable. So maybe we laugh to choke up and hide our real feelings, more than to deny them?

    As a postscript to this: I dreamt my son had died, and I was anxious that I was not crying. But when unrestrained, unstoppable weeping overcame me it was SUCH a relief, and I woke up actually looking forward to making good use of this ability to lament my loss for the rest of my life. And God, how I’d hate to laugh about it, even in a dream.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Julia, good luck! And please let us know what you discover/conclude. It will be very interesting to have your insights into our national psyche.

    In Britain we developed what we call a ‘stiff upper lip’ to enable us to cope with the terrible toll of WW1, when emotional outpouring was an (emotionally) unaffordable luxury. It is characterised by extreme emotional continence. Much British humour at funerals is a reaction to the stiff upper lip. But it may be reckoned peculiar that we seek to laugh, not weep. Perhaps it is because we still lack emotional ease – we dare not be sincere; we are afraid to grieve openly and, arguably, healthily. This cultural baggage (plus the Protestant death ethic) may be another factor. Both factors apply to Germany, of course (the latter less to Bavaria).

    But I don’t think we know the answer to your excellent question, Julia. Do come and tell us!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Thanks for the compliment 🙂
    What an excellent British understatement 😀
    Anyway, thanks for the suggestion, I will persuade my mum to buy all the books.
    Interesting question, I will just ask some german undertakes 🙂
    Of course I will ! Well, when thinking about it, maybe not if I completely fail…

    Thank you for the ideas, although I don’t know at the moment where to put this all in…
    Anyway, I’m also stumped by my topic :/
    I could write thousands of pages without coming to a realization… Let’s see, I’ve got half a year left 😉

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Interesting points, Vale. Thanks. And thank you, Jonathan.

    Julia, I think your question has stumped people a bit – because it’s such a big question and because humour itself is so hard to define.

    Other considerations to throw in the pot. We laugh at death to show we’re not afraid of it. We laugh at death because we are emotionally immature; it’s just bravado. We laugh at death because we use humour to deal with pain and misery. Soldiers at war share lots of jokes. In Russia people swapped far more jokes under communism than they have done since they became ‘free’.

    I guess all cultures use humour to mitigate the horror and misery of death. The prevailing British species of humour is black and anarchic. As the soldier said to his friend who was dying in agony, you shouldn’t join the army if you can’t take a joke.

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    This is such a complicated question. At least three pipes I think, but, in lieu, here are a few random jottings…

    My first thought was, what does the web say? And Google took me off to an interesting piece on gallows humour:


    It makes some general points – for example that “gallows humor often occurs in societies whose inhabitants have limited means of expressing discontent, yet in which significant discontent is experienced.”

    This seems true – thinking of soldiers, miners, all those trades and professions that have to accept death as a companion and who deal with his company by making fun of him.

    But although this is a clue, I didn’t think there was any,thing particularly British about something that must be common to men and women at all times and in every nation.

    The Wikipedia site had one quote, though, which set me thinking.

    Sir Thomas More is about to be executed. Climbing up the surprisingly rickety scaffold he said to his executioner: “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.”

    This seemed to me such a British thing to say – humourous, self deprecating, in a way that sets out to deny both the emotion and significance of the event.

    Is this a clue to our humour in the face of death? As a race we feel death as deeply and regard it a seriously as any other, but as individuals and particularly with regard to our own death, we deal with it by mockery, and, through laughter, evade any unseemly display of what is truly felt.

    If my theory is right, it might explain a love of humorous epitaphs. They are wittier versions of that instinct that makes some men say “O, don’t worry about me when I’m gone. I’d be happy if you just bundled me into a plastic bag”.

    Final thought, is there a gender issue here? Do men and women laugh about death in the same way? If my ‘don’t show emotion’ theory is right there might be a difference…

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    If I’d listened more at school in geography and history lessons I might have had a better perspective on the background of the subject you are researching, Julia – your translation is excellent, as Charles says, but much of what you say goes over my poor, uneducated head!

    Not strictly about British humour around death but something described as “an irreverent encyclopaedia of death”, which you may find interesting to read, is the book: ‘Death – A User’s Guide’, by Tom Hickman. (published in 2002. http://www.randomhouse.co.uk. ISBN: 0091885698)

    For what it’s worth, my only comment is that the British people’s ‘dark humour’ seems to be something mostly shared in private. Behind the scenes, you may hear funeral directors laughing uproariously about some joke in bad taste, for instance, but they will (normally!) be the soul of discretion when they are with a bereaved family or in the public eye. I wonder if that is true of German undertakers, or if their sense of respect for death prevents them from laughing even alone together?

    Sorry, Julia, I’m rambling now. Are you planning to post a link to your finished project on this blog? I look forward to reading it if you do. I wish you the best of luck with your fascinating study.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Julia, you have translated very, very well indeed. And we well understand the conservative influence of the Catholic church – as of all Christian sects and of other religions, for ours is a very multicultural country. However, it is, above all, a secular country in which the leading church, the Church of England, has always been broad and tolerant and undogmatic. I think that a great deal of dark funeral humour stems from both secular attitudes to life, the meaning of life and the status of the dead human body and also an iconoclastic rejection of piety and solemnity and emotional reticence.

    I hope that other readers will come in with some other (and very possibly contradictory) thoughts. This is potentially a very interesting area of discussion.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Julia Harrer

    Moreover I point out that religion has a big effect on whether one can laugh about death with black humour or not. I live in Bavaria, the most conservative state of Germany because of the influence of the Catholic church. That’s a reason why my grandma for example could never laugh about it… But how conservative/religious are the English?

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Julia Harrer

    Thank you so much Charles for posting my topic at your blog!!! I am extremely happy to read it :):):)
    Thanks a lot Tom! I’m really looking forward to get these books/essays…

    I found out more about the difference of English and German humour thanks to the German Professor Mr. Gelfert:

    There are basically two types of humour, the ‘town citizen humour’ and the ‘national citizen humour’ .

    In England people were living in towns and had to compete with each other and against the pressure of the class system. They had a (as far as I know) stable country with a monarch reigning it. What they wanted and still want is freedom.

    In Germany in the 18th century after the 30-years-war towns were nearly completely destroyed. Moreover Germany as a united state did not exist, it was split in very many small states. What the Germans wanted (especially while the enlightment) was a state, which protects them from enemies and provides justice.

    So the English developped their typical ‘bottom-up’ humour, that wants to strip everything of its power (no value is save, not even death -> life of bryan!). Adjectives for this type of humour are: respectless, anarchic, against any authority, cruel.

    On the other hand the Germans developped the ‘top-down’ humour, that wants to laugh about errors to enpower the morality and seeks for harmony. The important adjective is cosy.
    After WWII the Germans returned slowly to the ‘town citizen humour’ (they had it at the end of the middle ages, look at ‘till eulenspiegel’). One will find this type of humour mainly within the younger generation. So Germany has now two different types of humour: One, the British aren’t able to understand and another, the British think of as a bad copy.

    Mr. Gelfert writes in the end:
    The humour of Brits loves to tease
    And that of the Krauts wants to please.
    While the Brits think that Krauts
    Are humourless louts,
    The Krauts look at Brits with more ease.


    Gelfert, Hans-Dieter : Madam I’m Adam. Eine Kulturgeschichte des englischen Humors. München: C.H.Beck oHG,2001 (becksche Reihe)

    I tried really hard to translate it into English, if you didn’t understand any sentences please ask me and I’ll try to explain it with other words!

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Tom Thumb, thank you very much for these erudite sources. We are very lucky to have you call in and record them. It’s not just Julia who’ll be scrambling to read them. We are very grateful to you!

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    Tom Thumb

    There have been many academic studies into death and humour. Some references are:

    ASTEDT-KURKI, P., & LIUKKENEN, A. (1994). Humour in nursing care. Journal of Advanced Nursing,
    20, 183 – 188.

    CHAPMAN, A. J., & FOOT, A. C. (Eds.). (1976). Humour and laughter: Theory, research and
    applications. Chichester: John Wiley.

    HAFFERTY, F. W. (1988). Cadaver stories and the emotional socialization of medical students.
    Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, 29, 344 – 356.

    JOYCE, D. (1989). Why do police officers laugh at death? The Psychologist, September, 379 – 381.

    YOUNG, M. (1995). Black humour: Making light of death. Policing and Society, 5, 151 – 167.

    This will probably be a little to in depth for what is needed, but its my two pence worth.

    Charles Cowling