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!


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12 Comments on "Where would we be without a sense of humour?"

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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… Read more »
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… Read more »

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 😉

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallows_humor 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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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?

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… Read more »
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… Read more »