In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and Huckleberry Finn, both presumed dead, walk into the middle of their funeral service. The rare chance to hear the sobs of one’s own mourners is, for Tom, “the proudest moment of his life”. This may be the single recorded instance, fictional or otherwise, of this sort of thing going well.
Last month, Baltazar Lemos, a 60-year-old Brazilian ceremonista and conductor of many funerals, got to thinking about his own legacy after presiding over a service at which only two mourners had turned up. He decided to satisfy his curiosity by faking his own death: one day, he posted a picture of himself on social media outside a São Paulo hospital; the next day, he announced his demise.
In due course, Lemos organised a wake, and walked in while it was in progress. It was not the proudest moment of his life. You can guess how things turned out, even if he couldn’t: confusion reigned; mourners were, by and large, furious. “I spent one day sad and the other very indignant,” said an old friend who wants nothing more to do with Lemos.
Just as you can’t go back in time to fix your mistakes, you cannot pitch yourself across the spirit veil to hear the kind words that people reserve for the dead, and then return to life to savour them. Attempts to cheat the system have consequences. In an episode of Friends, Ross tries to tempt old college friends to a fake memorial service – it doesn’t go well. In season 11 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the comedian Albert Brooks stages a “live funeral” in his home, watching the service on a TV in his bedroom. Again, this backfires: Larry discovers a cupboard full of loo roll and hand sanitiser, outing Brooks as a Covid hoarder in front of the assembled.
If we are intrigued by the idea of crashing our own funerals, it’s largely because it’s impossible to imagine an event predicated on your nonexistence. It’s not that your friends would behave differently toward you; they wouldn’t behave toward you at all. They might keep saying that you’re up there somewhere looking down, but they’d know you weren’t.
Despite these examples, there is a persistent idea that attending your own funeral would be a fantastic luxury, a chance to hear all those nice things about yourself that people never got around to telling you when you were alive. In truth, no one was ever going to say that stuff to your face. It’s easy to have uncomplicated feelings about dead people – easy, and terribly sad. In life, we continue to judge each other, to have mixed emotions, to criticise and complain.
This, it turns out, is the real luxury: to enjoy a friend’s company and still be able to feel relieved when they finally go home, and to say mildly unkind things about them once they’ve left. It’s fine, because you know you’re going to see them again. If you want people to only say nice things about you, being dead is a prerequisite.
A new podcast – Where There’s a Will, There’s a Wake, presented by Kathy Burke – asks celebrities to prematurely visit their own ends, choosing the manner of death, making arrangements, assembling playlists and listening to eulogies prepared by friends (comedian James Acaster, for example, wants to be lasered to bits, then reassembled so his body can be fired into space).
It’s an entertaining exercise, but it doesn’t quite get to the heart of a post-you universe. The answer to every question about your own funeral should be another question: “Who cares? I won’t be there.” And even if you could be there, you’d only ruin it for everyone.
If you still think you’d like to be at your own funeral, chances are what you really want is some kind of lifetime achievement award. Depending on your line of business, it may not be too late to do something to warrant such a thing. At least you can turn up to the ceremony without everyone in the room wanting to kill you.
Tim Dowling is a regular Guardian contributor