Mark Twain’s Funeral Re-enactment


Elmira, New York:

Northumberland's infamous character "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 big black ones will be given to the first 75 mourners who show up.


A funeral reenactment? What an enterprising 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. 

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 Scots-blooded 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.

Another plus: if you've ever had the urge to photograph a burial, here you can do so without offending anyone.

Another plus: if you've ever had the urge to photograph a burial, here you can do so without offending anyone.

I shamefully 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 Samuel Clemens’ 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 parasols instead. 

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 whatever 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 if he were here, he would agree 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.

Samuel Clemens in his study

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 acted as second for a duelist named Monsieur Gambetta. The weapons for this duel, fought in a rheumy French fog, were teeny-weeny itsy-bitsy silver pistols with pea- sized cartridges ("Squirt-guns would be deadlier!" Twain exclaimed). 

In the long procession to the dueling ground, the carriages containing each French duelist and his second were 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 on Findhorn in Scotland. After I spent two weeks editing and key-wording them, and he sent me the layout, raving on about how gorgeous my photos were. Two days later, 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 far removed from the setting of my travel story.

The Thomas Cook Travel packager I dealt after that treated me even worse. For the privilege of writing a guidebook to Inverness, I was supposed to sign their contract giving up my moral rights to the writing, indemnify them forever, promise to never again write about Scotland—or even think of writing—lest I compete with my own work. And I was to produce more words and pages than originally negotiated—for no extra money—and for a deadline five minutes away. I crossed out everything I didn't like, and they crossed it all back in, then I crossed it out again. We would have been better off firing at each other with pistols!

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 Street.” Obviously, the Catholic school didn't think Twain was suitable reading, especially his essay Letters to Satan, and his diatribe against Christian Science. 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. Discover.”

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 hotcakes. 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.

Rules For Behavior At a Funeral

Make no remarks about his equipment. If the handles are plated, it is best to seem to not observe it. 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 presence.

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.

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.
— Mark Twain

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. 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 taffy here. 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 just shouted!!! 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 broke Twain's funeral etiquette rule about sobbing only if you are a blood relative.


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- Langhorne clan. 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 Eve.

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.