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The Last Adieu: A Wake for the Living

It is not surprising that death has always been a target for comedians and satirists.  After all, dying is the ultimate prat fall, an ungainly reminder to others that their time is coming.  When Leo Tolstoy wanted to have a good laugh at the expense of the Russian middle class, he naturally chose a funeral for his setting.  His story “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” one of the starkest evocations of mortality in fiction, begins with mockery.  Ivan Ilych, a judge of middling distinction and enormous vanity, has died.  At the news, his colleagues in the judiciary immediately begin calculating how his demise will affect them.  What realignments and promotions will follow?  At the same time, these good gentlemen “could not help thinking . . . that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.”  At the wake in Ilych’s home, these fellows bumble about not knowing what they are supposed to do in front of the coffin.  Should they bless themselves or bow?  Or is it both at once?  Of one thing, however, they are all certain: As the narrator explains, “the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, ‘It is he who is dead and not I.’”

The television comic Jackie Gleason used to paint...

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