September 2012 Column From Irish American News

Mike Houlihan

“Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Okay Shakespeare, call me a coward because I have died many times…on stage, screen, radio, and once while actually laying in a coffin.

I’d forgotten about that last one until telling the story while attending one of the many wakes that have recently popped up on my social calendar.

A good Irish wake requires two important ingredients: booze and laughter. Evidently there is now a state law against bringing booze into a funeral home, or so an undertaker told me as he stopped me bringing in a case of beer to the back room at Donellan’s on Western Avenue.

But sneak it in if you must because it sure makes the time go faster when you’re on your feet all day shaking the hands of mourners. And a “touch of the creature” has medicinal value to loosen the memory and recount the good times you shared with the loved one. They say the only sound a dead man hears is laughter, so keep the stories going.

Many years ago, my Uncle Paul had the temerity to die while I was back in Chicago introducing my future bride, the lovely Mary Carney, to my family. The highlight of her trip was attending the wake and funeral of ol’ Uncle Paul, a retired cop who was in his eighties. For some reason Mary got a case of the giggles at the wake, which endeared her to all the Houlihans. She tried to stop but that just made it funnier for her and soon there were tears streaming down her face from trying to cease the giggles. She made a wonderful first impression.

One of the great gifts of being Irish is our ability to laugh at death. There’s nothing funny about it when it’s a child or the sudden departure of a mother or father but for the rest of us, well we all know sooner or later we’re going to be taking the dirt nap. And we’ve been mocking the grim reaper since the day Lazarus laughed to the night of Tim Finnegan’s wake.

Actors of course have an affinity for kicking the bucket and have adopted death as a metaphor for a lousy performance.

There’s a Cagney story, maybe apocryphal, of a young actor who was worried about his death scene in the film, “Ragtime”, and he sought out James Cagney on the set and asked him for any tips on dying. Cagney reportedly looked the young man in the eye and sneered, “Just die, kid.”

And then of course there’s the old story, attributed to many actors, but most often to Shakespearian thespian Edmund Kean, who was greeted at his deathbed by a friend who said, “This all must be terribly difficult for you” To which Kean responded in a frail voice, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” And then promptly dropped dead.

Several years ago I was lucky enough to have a guest spot on an episode of The Untouchables. I just recently received a residual check for twenty-six cents when it played in Denmark.

I played an Irish cop who is murdered by a villainous Mafia type. The show centered on the character of a ten year old boy and I played the kid’s father. We filmed the scene of my wake at an old funeral home that was rented out by the production company for the night and renamed “Taylor’s Mortuary”. The actor playing Mr. Taylor walked around the set constantly wringing his hands and rehearsing his lines to himself. Unlike Mr. Taylor, I didn’t have any lines in that scene because I was dead.

It was interesting lying there in the coffin with my shoes off, but after a couple of hours I grew bored. The kid knelt in front of me on the kneeler and it was taking hours to set up the shot. During a lull I finally opened one eye towards him, “Psst, psst, psst!’

The lad smiled because I had been goofing around with him during the whole episode. I whispered to the kid, “Mr. Taylor is a necrophiliac!”

That’s when the kid very loudly asked, “What’s a necrophiliac?”

All hell then broke loose in the funeral parlor and I was immediately sternly lectured by the director and almost fired. The crew seemed to find it amusing and the kid kept asking everybody until being told to “just shut up and go back to crying.”

In retrospect I guess I’m lucky they didn’t kill me at my own wake.

Wanting to laugh at wakes is what makes us Irish. I think that’s because we don’t fear death because we know it’s not the end, but merely a portal to an everlasting life with Our Lord and savior.

I hope when I eventually die for real everybody at my wake will remember that. Enjoy yourselves as much as me, sneak in some booze and let’s have some laughs!

See you at Sheehy’s!


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