Humorous Funeral Cards: Of Luther, Chicago, and Beating Death

3 Jan

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
~ Wendell Berry

rare-medium-well-done-bookstore-2Tidying up around my house can be an exercise in liberal arts education – you should receive CEUs for it.

Like this morning: A random copy of Salinger’s Franny and Zooey abandoned on the front table; a Bible (RSV) here, a book of saints there; Stephen King and Christopher Dawson, The Wall Street Journal and The Catholic Worker a jumbled, lettered mess, like the rest of the house. Who’s in charge around here anyway?

And then, some comic relief: a Dilbert collection (open at random), let’s see:

DILBERT: How are you coming on designing your greeting cards for death occasions?

DOGBERT: Okay. Now I’m working on the humorous angle.

That’s not the punchline, but it’s plenty funny in itself, and it reminds me of a day I was behind the counter at the Chicago Logos Bookstore many years ago. A coiffed, be-furred woman hastily rummaged through our greeting cards, and then approached me in a huff. “Are all your sympathy cards out?” she demanded.

“I believe so,” was my reply. “Can I help….”

She interrupted – “Don’t you have any humorous sympathy cards?”

I paused; my manager, Dale, standing nearby, the perpetual cigarette dangling from his lips, froze; somewhere, I imagine, a cricket sounded. “Humorous sympathy cards?” I timidly ventured.

“Yeah,” she fired back, “like, ‘I don’t give a darn’” – only she didn’t say darn.

Dale prudently turned away, and I managed a straight face somehow – grace, no doubt. “I’m sorry, nothing like that.” She turned and shook the dust from her feet.

It’s a story I’ve told many times (as my longsuffering kids can testify), and I’ve got lots more where that came from. Working at a bookstore in the heart of the city was an adventure – rarely a dull moment – and you could always count on having a story to tell when you made your way home in the evening.

In the case of my card-shopper friend, it was a story with a moral as well. After she left the store, Dale and I chuckled over her request – “Could you believe that?” Of course, it would be wholly cruel to send such a card to anyone, and so it’s unthinkable that any store would sell them (besides, I suppose, some entity like The Onion).

greco_francisNevertheless, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, the more I’ve come to appreciate the encounter’s memorable association of humor with death – never the pain, nor the bereavement and loss, but only the end of life itself. There’s no question that death is an enemy – our “last enemy” in the words of the Catechism – but we Christians are bound to laugh in the face of that enemy, for he’s already beaten. “O Lord God, ought we not to rejoice and not only serve gladly,” wrote Martin Luther of our response to redemption, “but suffer and laugh at death for the sake of him who has given us such a treasure?”

I love St. Francis, and I get his Canticle’s embrace of Sister Death, “from whom no living man can escape.” But if death really is an enemy, then it deserves the card-shopper’s insolence and Luther’s sass. “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell,” he instructed, “we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it?’”

There are worse things than death – including not being able to laugh at it.

7 Responses to “Humorous Funeral Cards: Of Luther, Chicago, and Beating Death”

  1. DanSouthChicago January 3, 2016 at 4:49 pm #

    Did you work at the Logos on Broadway or in Oak Park or ?

    God bless.

    • Rick Becker January 3, 2016 at 8:40 pm #

      It was the Logos on Clark, just north of Fullerton. It closed many years ago I’m afraid — did you know it? Thanks for your response/inquiry!

      • DanSouthChicago January 4, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

        Yes, Clark, not Broadway. I was there a couple times. I thought it was a pleasant but unusual surprise to find a Christian resource in a commercial area like that.

        God bless you in your work. Thank you for what you do.

  2. Patrick Joseph Wells Jr. January 7, 2016 at 12:55 am #

    I would not be so quick to use Luther to do anything “positive.” We know already where he is and where he has led so many other to:

    “In 1883, Sister Maria Serafina Micheli (1849-1911) was beatified in Faicchio in the province of Benevento in the diocese of Cerreto Sannita 28 May 2011, the foundress of the Sisters of the Angels, was going to Eisleben, Saxony, the birthplace of Luther. The fourth centenary of the birth of the great heretic (10 November 1483) was celebrated on that day.

    The streets were crowded, balconies included. Among the many personalities were expected at any time, with the arrival of Emperor Wilhelm I, who presided over the solemn celebrations.

    The future Blessed, noting the great hoopla was not interested in knowing the reason for this unusual animation, wanted to find a church and pray to be able to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. After walking for a while, she finally found one, but the doors were closed. She knelt on the steps for serenity prayer. As it was in the evening, she had not noticed that it was not a Catholic church, but Protestant. While praying, the angel appeared, who said to her. “Arise, because it is a Protestant church” Then he added: “But I want you to see where Martin Luther was condemned and the pain he suffered as a punishment for his pride.”

    After these words, she saw a terrible abyss of fire, where they were cruelly tortured countless souls. In the bottom of this hole there was a man, Martin Luther, which differed from the other: it was surrounded by demons that forced him to kneel, and all armed with hammers, they tried in vain , to shove a big nail in the head. Religious thought, if some of the people had seen this dramatic scene, they would not have made honors and other commemorations and celebrations for such a character.

    Later, when the opportunity arose to remind his sisters live in humility and in secret. She was convinced that Martin Luther was punished in hell especially for the first deadly sin of pride. Pride is a deadly sin, brought him open rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church. His behavior, his attitude towards the Church, and his preaching were crucial to encourage and bring many souls to eternal ruin.”

  3. Derek Puleo January 8, 2016 at 7:53 pm #

    Why are you quoting Luther on what is supposed to be a Catholic website?

    • Rick Becker January 9, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      Thanks for your question, Derek.

      This might sound like an evasive answer, but I quote Luther because I think what he has to say is relevant to what I’m writing about. Luther might’ve lost his way theologically and ecclesially, but he was still a thoughtful and insightful believer. Plus, I have a soft spot for Luther because he helped sustain my faith during a period of deep doubt and skepticism prior to my conversion to Catholicism.

      So, yes, I’m thoroughly Catholic, and I guess that means you can call this blog/website a Catholic one. However, I’d like to think that it also reflects a genuine ecumenism which we Catholics are bound to embrace. For more on that, check out this post on Crisis:


  1. Humorous Funeral Cards: Of Luther, Chicago, and Beating Death | One Thousand Words a Week - January 3, 2016

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