Saturday, January 06, 2007

Funeral TV, The Funeral Channel, RIP TV

I missed a lot of the week or so of live television coverage of funerary events for the late former President Gerald Ford and James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.

Because of Ford's position as the former leader of the free world, CSPAN, PBS and the cable news networks repeated most of the pomp and circumstance of late prez's family-and-friends services in California, motorcade to the Capitol, ceremonies at the Capitol, his lying in state, public services at the Washington Cathedral and the grand finale in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Portions of the eulogizing of Ford by then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert and of Brown by now-reclusive pop star Michael Jackson were re-broadcast on talk and entertainment shows, but not in their entirety.

I was unable to stay home from work to watch live coverage of this death-related hoopla. And I felt somehow deprived for having missed any of it - particularly the musical tributes to Brown.

I also wanted to compare their sendoffs with those of other presidents and entertainment icons. Nostalgia swept over me. Could I please see repeats of the funerals of Presidents Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy and Roosevelt? How about some historic reports on pre-TV presidential funerals, like Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson? How did James Brown's tributes compare with the recently deceased R&B star Gerald Levert or country legend Johnny Cash or just-plain-legendary Frank Sinatra?

If only my cable company offered a cable channel dedicated to funerals! Funeral TV! The Funeral Channel! Insomniacs flipping through the remote control could find videotaped or phone-cam images from funerals of the dearly - or notoriously - departed rich and famous to watch and/or fall asleep to.

I mentioned this to a few friends, who thought the notion of all funerals, all day on one channel strange and amusing. That's how I felt when I first learned about The Weather Channel or CSPAN2's BookTV. And yet I have become a fan of both.

Before composing this blog item, I was reminded of these paraphrased words of the late great comedian/philosopher/songwriter/TV-host Steve Allen: If an idea is good, more than likely you are not the only one who has thought of it.

So I googled "Funeral Channel" and "Funeral TV." Yep. I got lots of hits.

In a 1997 piece titled "Why funerals play so well on TV," author Steven D. Stark wrote:

Mourning no longer becomes Electra, but in a very odd way, it does become television -- so much so that Michael Kinsley (journalist who was Pat Buchanan's liberal adversary on CNN's "Crossfire") several years ago (apparently in the early 1990s or 1980s) jokingly suggested that cable television would one day feature a new network called the Funeral Channel.

I found a 1999 "Insight on the News" piece in which writer Jennifer G. Hickey talked about a Clown Funeral. She wrote:

It was a big day for the big top in Hugo, Okla., particularly for Doris Richard Miller, otherwise known as Mr. Circus, who died in September but had been put on ice by the Carson & Barnes five-ring circus until the show season concluded. While big red noses and cymbal-playing monkeys were not called for, Mr. Circus had left careful instructions for his last performance, -- including being laid out in a red and gold casket, to be carried by a horse-drawn hearse followed by marching musicians playing circus music to enliven his journey to the hereafter.

This "best funeral ever" even included in the procession one of Miller's 36 elephants, missing only live coverage by the cable-TV networks. If only there were a 24-hour funeral channel.

"Think how wonderfully ludicrous that would be. I don't think it is viable, but it is the logical extension" of the current coverage, suggests Jane Hall, associate professor of communication at American University in Washington. While the notion of an all-funeral channel (let's call it RIP-TV) may elicit a dismissive giggle from enthusiasts of black humor, the recent trend of airing everything from tragic events to the funerals that follow them suggests that there may be a Harold and Maude market.

The Blue Aardvark, a prolific message-board contributor penned this comment on Andy Polley's Happy Fun Time message board:
This reminds me that what this world really needs is The Funeral Channel. There always a good one going on somewhere. Slack time could be filled with historic packages.

My sentiments exactly.

Practical reasons for a Grim Channel are given in "What's Playing On The Funeral Channel?" from Nov. 1998. (I'm not certain where it first appeared.):

Retired sociology professor Robert Fulton, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, says people shouldn't be surprised to see a "funeral channel" added to cable network offerings in the near future. Televised funeral services for celebrities and public figures have provided big ratings for CNN, MSNBC, and the Fox News Channel, with some networks doubling viewership.

"Watching televised funerals provides a chance for people to express emotion, or at least see others expressing [it]," Fulton explains. "People afraid of death can also keep it at a distance." For example, the high-profile deaths of Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, politicians Barry Goldwater and Sonny Bono, and country-and-western singer Tammy Wynette had networks scrambling to broadcast funerals. "It's packaged death--a way of keeping death under control. We can see the grief on the faces of family and friends, but we are spared that."

My Internet search also discovered references to funeral homes offering Webcasts of funerals for mourners unable to attend; a movie titled "Funeral Channel," a dark comedy which apparently was made in 1999 but never released; and support for a funeral channel in the mode of the History Channel or Biography from Rychard E. Withers, who posts with WNN, an online discussion group for fans of ABC's "World News Now."

In a 2003 entry, Withers wrote:
And I've been saying for years that this would be a cable channel that would
work . . steady supply of material and lots of big names . . . "The Funeral Channel . . . now you'll know the bastard's dead."


Marilyn Johnson said...

Thanks for the post, Alana. Have you seen the UK magazine The Oldie? It features a wonderful column by Ned Sherrin, "the world's only Memorial Services correspondent," recapping recent and noteworthy funerals. Marilyn

Anonymous said...

For those that are not famous (or beven if they are) There's a free entry Book of Memorial with space for extensive text and pictures at