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Book Report: Finding the funny in very grave matters

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Humorists can make hay of the least likely subjects.

Like death.

Remember W. C. Fields?

He said he wanted the following inscription on his tombstone: "On the Whole I'd Rather Be in Philadelphia."

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And then there was "Pep" Simek of Medford, who recently passed on to the big pizza parlor in the sky.

He and his brother ran a saloon across the road from the Medford cemetery. They called it Tombstone.

Years ago they began marketing a frozen pizza called Tombstone, with ad copy that followed: "What do you want on your tombstone?"

And before we move on to a new book, let's not forget one of the most hilarious novels about death and its aftermath, Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One."

Recently author Bess Lovejoy got into the act.

With a very fun book entitled, "Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses" (Simon & Schuster, $22).

Lovejoy who worked for years as a researcher for Schutt's Almanac, puts her work experience to good use as she uncovers burial practices since time immemorial.

She writes "The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated and even filed away in a lawyer's office."

Counterfeiters, she found, tried to steal Abe Lincoln's corpse.

Einstein's brain went on a cross-country road trip.

And in a tip of the hat to Wisconsin drinking habits, British sailors who fought with Lord Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar submerged their fallen leader in a vat of brandy, then drank the brandy -- Lovejoy didn't say whether they added cherry juice as they do in the Badger State.

No less a notable than Mark Antony figured that the poet Cicero was being too critical of Roman administration policies, so ordered him an enemy of the state and that he be hunted down and killed.

Cicero was accosted by troops and said, "There is nothing proper about what you are doing, but at least try to cut off my head properly."

The soldiers complied, and then cut off his hands, after which both head and hands were sent to Rome and nailed above the speakers platform in the Forum.

So much for democracy during The Golden Age.

What makes this book really interesting is that Lovejoy really gets into the history and tells us more than researchers before her.

For example, there's the matter of humorist Dorothy Parker's ashes.

I've known for years that they ended up in a jar at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Lovejoy persists in following up that fate and finds an even more interesting story.

Author Lillian Hellman, Parker's executor, ordered the cremation, then never paid the cremators, who finally sent the ashes to the Algonquin, who passed them on to the lawyer in charge -- see above.

I thought the story ended there, but no.

Lovejoy found that still later, the lawyer sent the ashes to Martin Luther King, Jr., because Parker, though she didn't even know King personally, left her royalty fees, etc., to the civil rights crusader.

King didn't know Parker, but when he was presented with the estate and the ashes at a Southern Christian Leadership Council meeting, he said to his colleagues, "I've always said the Lord will provide."

When King was murdered, the estate passed on to the NAACP and it laid her ashes to rest in a pine grove at their national headquarters in Baltimore.

Isn't reading fun? And edifying?

Several years ago during the Norwegian Sesquicentennial, my colleague Gracia Christensen edited a fascinating book, in which Norwegian immigrant women wrote home to Norway and described their lives, their hopes and fears to relatives in the old country. It was a fascinating look at what it must have been like to be a "newcomer."

I remember one farm wife wrote about an electrical storm, which she'd never seen at home, wondering if it were a message from God.

Now we're blessed with a bigger book than Gracia's, edited and translated by a Norwegian scholar, Orm Overland, "From America to Norway" (Norwegian-American Historical Association, $50).

It's based on a seven-volume Norwegian archival series. "From America to Norway" is the first volume of a proposed three-volume set, not including index.

This first volume covers letters home written between 1838 and 1870. Subsequent volumes will take the reader to 1914, when World War I hostilities broke out.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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