ODD SCOTLAND ABROAD:
Mark Twain's Funeral ( Reenactment)
Northumberland's infamous "Umbrella Mary" was a poor old age pensioner who attended funerals not to mourn, but just to fill up her big English black brolly with free
sandwiches and sweets. Imagining a grand brolly like Umbrella Mary's, I'm looking forward to attending Mark Twain's funeral, because the ad in the Elmira, New York Star-Gazette says they'll be given to the first 75 mourners who show up.
A funeral reenactment? What an enterprising American idea. In Scotland, historical reenactments of battles and jousting tournaments are the thing. But America has fewer
battles to reenact, so we have the latest tourism
product: funeral reenactments.
At these events, local funeral parlors, crematoriums,
casket makers, monument engravers, hearse-hire
companies, florists, and vintage period clothiers can
efficiently peddle their wares.
Another plus: if you've ever had the urge to
photograph a burial, here you can do so without
The purpose of a burial reenactment is to revive the
original grief for the deceased, or so was the aspiration of Cynthia Raj, Manager of Tourism Promotions at the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce. Bring a black umbrella and shed a tear at the Observance of the 100th Anniversary of the Death of Mark Twain, the rambunctious Father of American literature.
Twain's Ulster Scots ancestors emigrated to America from Ballyclare, County Antrim. Like his Scottish forebears, this renegade spirit - born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri in 1835 - drank, smoked (20 stogies a day), reviled religion and social and political hypocrisy. His satires of
Congress, Wall Street, the abuse of wealth and power,
political corruption, insurance companies, publishers and editors, sham and greed are spot-on today.
I shamedly admit that I was expecting a grand Victorian brolly
with a curved wooden handle and a nasty spike at the end, not a cheap collapsible stick-in-your pocket umbrella whose spokes will snap at the first gust. But with the Credit Crunch,
you're lucky to get anything for free.
On the day of Mark Twain's first funeral in 1910, it
rained dogs and cats. But global warming makes this
April 24th in Western New York's Finger Lakes region
blaze like mid-summer. We mourners use our brollys as
Heavens to Betsy! What would Twain think of his funeral
being reenacted? Having mastered the art of self-promotion in his own pre-digital lifetime, he'd snicker at the opportunism of it - promoting Mark Twain Country and Elmira's Chamber of Commerce, because of the books he wrote here, in that wee octagonal shed on the hill at Quarry Farm
And because his remains and those of his wife Olivia
Langdon and their kids, grandparents and in-laws are
buried here in the Langdon plot.
How very Scottish to exploit a funeral centenary. Some
mourner-reenactors look old enough to meet their maker
any day now, and so here's a model casket to consider,
provided by Olthof Funeral Home, with Fred Smith,
Funeral Director listed in the program credits. And to
go out in style, you could be inspired by the Model T
Touring Car provided by Kalec Funeral Home.
Mark Twain would have a good guffaw at the modern wheelchair
slipped into the antique hearse under the empty coffin; the Nike sneakers and Canon digital cameras and Nokia cell phones and Ray Ban sunglasses. In Scotland a Continuity Expert would insure everyone attending wore period dress, and would outlaw anachronisms. But in America, you do what you want.
Way back in 1983 (not 1883), when I performed as a Revolutionary War musician at a reenactment in the Catskill Mountains of New
York, nobody minded that I was plucking a replica 14th
century Irish harp, and the other musicians had Northumbrian bagpipes and Greek bouzoukis. Yet I was chastised for not bringing a wooden soup bowl and spoon to this odd gig. And when I chortled that the Revolutionary War muskets came from Japan, this colossal insult nearly got me hauled off to the stocks.
Twain employed comic anachronisms in his travel writing, and would say they added entertainment value to his funeral reenactment. In Elmira, New York on a Saturday morning, it was the only entertainment. Despite the absence of salt-water taffy, it was great place to bring your Granny and your kids.
There was excitement in the air, not like at a funeral
with a real dead body. Everybody lined up to watch
the funeral "cortage" (as the Master of Ceremonies
called it) crawl from the Park Church to the graveside at Woodlawn. I must admit, and Twain would too, that this procession of horse-drawn carriages, antique cars and vintage
trolleys was puny compared to that in "The Great French
Duel" in his A Tramp Abroad.
In this satire of French pomp, pistols, and poltroonery,
Twain acts as second for a duelist named Monsieur
Gambetta. The weapons for this duel, fought in a rheumy French fog, are teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy silver pistols with pea-
sized cartridges ("Squirt-guns would be deadlier"
In the long procession to the dueling ground, the carriages containing each French duelist and his second are followed by
carriages containing poet-orators; carriages containing head surgeons and their cases of instruments; a hack containing a coroner, followed by two hearses (in case the combatants should
perish - of pneumonia); carriages containing head undertakers, followed by a train of assistants and mutes on foot, and camp
followers, police and citizens.
"It was a noble turnout, and would have made a fine display if we had had thinner weather," Twain quipped.
Duels were a handy means of settling disputes back then, and if Twain hadn't left Nevada in 1864 after challenging his newspaper editor to a duel, he might have died from one. Writers being badly paid even back then, in 1862 Clemens went
out to Nevada to prospect and for gold and silver. Lady Luck forsook him so he took a job reporting for the Territorial
Enterprise in Virginia City.
In 1863, after signing a humorous travel sketch
with the pseudonym "Mark Twain - a riverboat term meaning "two fathoms deep" : barely navigable water - Sam became Mark and Clemens became Twain.
What was it about the Enterprise job that
provoked Twain to want to fight with his editor? I
can imagine. The last editor I tried to work with,
of Sleazy Jet Infight Magazine, requested
photos to accompany my story. After I spent two
weeks editing and key-wording them, and he raved
on about how gorgeous my photos were, he off-handedly sent
me a revised layout to approve, with all my photos
removed and replaced by royalty-free, out-of-date
snaps grabbed off the net - showing someplace continents
away from the setting of my travel story, before it had
been destroyed by a flood.
The Travel Cookbook packager which I dealt with next wanted me
to sign away my moral rights, indemnify them forever,
promise never to write again after that, or even think
of writing, (lest I compete with my own work); produce more words and pages than originally negotiated - for free - and for a deadline five minutes away.
I crossed out everything I didn't like, and they
crossed it all back in, and we would have been better off firing at each other with pistols. With today's boring lawsuits, the only winners are the lawyers.
Mark Twain has been my travel writing muse ever
since I rescued an entire collection of his works
tossed out on the street in my Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan
neighborhood in the 1980's. Each vintage volume was
stamped with "Sacred Heart School, 456 West 52nd
Obviously, the Catholic school didn't think Twain
was suitable reading, especially his essay
Letters to Satan, and his diatribe against
Mark Twain was a passionate and wise traveler. “Travel
is fatal to bigotry, prejudice and narrow-
mindedness,” he wrote. “ Broad wholesomeness and
charitable views cannot be acquired by vegetating in
one tiny corner of the globe.”
And he cautioned: “Twenty years from now you
will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't
do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the
bowlines,” he urged. “Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream.
More than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
(another freebie handed out at his funeral reenactment),
Twain's travel books - The Innocents Abroad
(1869) , Roughing It (1872), A Tramp
Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi River
(1883), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Following the Equator (1897) - sold like
Some 130 years ago, he was satirizing travel writing
and travel writers and embellishing his travel
memoirs with preposterous lies and congenial egomanical exaggerations, calling a spade a spade, and a turd a turd. I endeavored to do the same in my Montreal Gazette column "Innocents Abroad," filling it with bad trip anecdotes, and stuff advertisers wouldn't relish.
Today's sun shines a harsh torchlight onto wrinkles,
white chin hairs, yellow tartared teeth, and bald
pates. Twain is surely watching, for those of us
breaking his Rules For Behavior At a Funeral featured in the reenactment's program notes.
Make no remarks about his equipment. If the handles
are plated, it is best to seem to not to observe
If the odor of the flowers is too oppressive
for your comfort, remember that they were not brought
there for you, and that the person for whom they were
brought suffers no inconvenience from their
Thanks to the Credit Crunch and genetically modified
flowers, the wee bouquets tarting up the horse-drawn
hearse don't smell much. But the cheap cologne
wafting from under the billowly flowery hats is not
to be ignored.
Listen, with as intense an expression of attention
as you can command, to the official statement of the
character and history of the person in whose honor the
entertainment is given; and if these statistics should
seem to fail to talley with the facts, in places, do not
nudge your neighbor, or press your foot upon his
toes, or manifest, by any other sign, your awareness
that taffy is being distributed.
Gee, where's the taffy? It was all the rage back then,
New Jersey shore salt water taffy. Peanut-butter
flavored was my favorite. They should be passing out
As the eulogy was read, the microphone kept going on and
off so you heard a faint warble then a boom. Then
nothing. In Twain's day, the minister would have
Although I came here, as I already said, for the free umbrella,
and to see how you can market a funeral as a
tourist attraction, in the end, I did weep, though I
broke Twain's rule:
At the moving passages, be moved - but only
according to the degree of your intimacy with the
parties giving the entertainment, or with the party in whose honor the entertainment is given. Where a blood relation sobs,
and intimate friend should choke up, a distant acquaintance should sigh, a stranger should merely fumble sympathetically with his handkerchief.
After hearing Barbara Snedecor, Director of the
Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College,
tell about Samuel Clemens' personal life, I was in
sobs. She brought an armload of photographs to place on each of the gravestones, to show who had been who in the Clemens-
She then recounted how Clemens' brother died in a steamboat
accident, then his first-born, and only son died at
age two, then his favorite daughter Susy, then his
wife, then his other daughter just after trimming
the tree on Christmas
Who could survive such grief ? Clemens died four months
later, but peacefully. And then Snedecor said that America's beloved humorist had declared - after a tumultuous lifetime of
family deaths, bankruptcy, poverty, upheaval, and more
family deaths - that the wellspring and source of all
humour is sorrow.
Perhaps we do have something to learn from attending
funeral reenactments of great souls like Samuel Clemens. Anachronisms or no, it is the content, rather than the form, that we take away from such events.