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The Last Laugh



Who created A Clockwork Orange, the strange, disturbing and darkly humour film that is now recognized as one of the classics of the twentieth century? The film is more famous than its director, Stanley Kubrick, and the director is more famous than the creator, Anthony Burgess. He wrote the original book, which is both very violent and very inventive. Burgess was very interested in two things: the possibilities of language and the problem of evil. Why is there so much suffering in the world – death, pain and misery?

He couldn’t escape that question, because he was born in Manchester at the end of the First World War shortly before a world-wide epidemic of influenza. Millions of people died and two of them were very close to Burgess: his mother and his sister. At least, they would have been close to him if he’d ever known them. He didn’t: he was still a baby in his cradle when they caught the infection and died in a few hours.

Growing up without a mother, he always knew that the world was a dangerous and uncertain place. And there was a lot of violence, suffering and poverty in Manchester between the wars. There was a lot of humour too and Burgess saw how people used jokes as a way to overcome their fear of death and other disturbing things. He heard lots of stories about death, like the one about the woman who has her husband’s ashes put into an egg-timer after he passes away. “Bugger never did a stroke of work while he was alive,” she says. “He can work now he’s dead.”

When he had grown up, Burgess put black humour like that into his books. He never stopped mourning the loss of his mother and sister, so he knew that death is a serious thing, but he also knew that we don’t have to let it overshadow our lives. His upbringing in tough times in a tough city showed him how to laugh in the face of death. The same is true of another great Mancunian: the comedian Les Dawson.

Like Burgess, Dawson delighted in word-play and linguistic invention. He also delighted in black humour, like this joke: “Granddad died last month. He fell into a vat of whiskey. They tried to rescue him three times, but he managed to fight them off. I don’t know how much he swallowed, but when they cremated him the fire lasted nine days.”

Dawson told many jokes like that, bringing laughter and entertainment to people who knew, just as he did, that death, illness and pain are serious things. But jokes help us to face what might otherwise overwhelm or terrify us. You could say that he was having the last laugh, finding the humour in the stark fact that faces everyone. One day we will leave the living and pass away.

Comedians like Les Dawson and writers like Anthony Burgess help us face it and see in it in proper perspective. If we fear dying too much, we won’t enjoy life while it lasts. And when our time comes, we should meet our fate calmly and without regrets. That’s how Dawson and Burgess passed away, because their message was aimed at themselves too.

National Federation of Funeral Directors