Death and Laughter

“If April showers bring May flowers,” I asked my four-month-old son as he lay on my chest, “what do May flowers bring?”

I waited for a reply but four-month-olds are uncommonly reticent about speaking, so finally I was compelled to answer my own riddle.

“Pilgrims!” I cried with glee.

My wife Janet lay there next to me, propped up on one elbow and rolling her eyes. The only thing worse than a dumb joke is a dumb joke you’ve heard before. So I sat little Luke up on my chest and said, “I don’t know, Luke. I thought it was a good joke. What did you think?”

He instantly barfed on me.

Janet fell over backward laughing and eventually slid off the bed in her convulsive hysteria. It was several minutes before I could get a coherent word out of her.

I looked at Luke, grinning his two-tooth grin. “Everyone’s a critic,” I said.

Laughter is uniquely human. Dour philosophers have spent millennia trying to figure out what distinguishes us from the beasts. If they weren’t dour, they would have known: nothing else in nature cracks up at jokes. Oh sure, hyenas laugh. But this has as much to do with humor as a parrot reciting the Lord’s Prayer has to do with worship. Hyenas laugh at jokes, but they don’t get them. Only we do.

That is because only we humans notice incongruities are funny. Things that seem odd together are always funny. Also, things that are serious are funny while things that are lightweight are not. It is much funnier when Pope John Paul peeks through his “Junior Bird Man” hand goggles than when a clown does it. The joke is funny because the Bishop of Rome is serious. Likewise, sex is funnier than accounting because sex is more serious than accounting.

So is death, which explains all those jokes about St. Peter and all the odd hilarity of black humor from Hamlet all the way to that moment in Titanic when the Irishman mutters, “Music to drown by! Now I know we’re in first class!”

C.S. Lewis once said that most of Christian theology could be proven by the fact that we tell dirty jokes and that there is something uncanny about the dead. Dogs, observed Lewis, do not see anything funny about being dogs nor about making puppies. They approach sex as they approach dinner, with a businesslike attitude. We humans, in contrast, find ourselves continually “half shocked and half tickled to death” by the whole thing, says Lewis. It’s as though our spirits are not quite at home in our bodies-as though we are fallen and don’t quite know how to govern this strange house of which we have been left in charge.

Similarly, Lewis notes it is silly to say we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. We could just as easily say we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses. What we actually hate is the division of what ought not to be divided: a human person ripped apart into a corpse and a ghost. It is the ultimate incongruity, and it is not funny-which is why we make so many jokes about it and laugh nervously.

But God laughs triumphantly at death. He laughs because the dead were pulled out from under the devil’s feet and Old Scratch took the ultimate pratfall, to be left spluttering at his own cosmic and comic stupidity in falling for God’s ultimate practical joke: destroying death from inside out. So let us, who are in the image of the God who laughs, laugh too. The joke, to be sure, is on us who all had a hand in crucifying Christ. But it is, far more, for our benefit whom God has raised up with him to know the joy of him who “sits in the heaven and laughs.” (Psalm 2:4).


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