Burying Fans: Material Culture and Ritual at Fandom Funerals
In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions. The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys. Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual. For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand). When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’”
Fandom’s reach into once-sacred final rituals may simply confirm our aversion to antiseptic burial rites. While a handful of observers decry the decline of traditional funeral decorum, these fan funerals may just affirm the eroding divide between sacred and secular. Fan funerals underscore how fandom defines many fans in the eyes of those who outlast us, and it publicly acknowledges without any embarrassment that fandoms represent many people’s most deeply held values and communities. Rather than caricature fandom as obsessive or anti-social, fan funerals are instead consistently greeted with acceptance, humor, and even respect that even dead fans and their friends embrace their passions. That reception may confirm that many once-disparaged corners of fandom have escaped the guise of fandoms’ fringe status if not shame.
Fandom is often associated with obsessive devotion to a sports team, geek franchise, or some popular cultural discourse around which a community of like-minded people gather. The most committed fans are inclined to cast themselves as fringe outsiders, but the prominence of sport and popular culture in everyday life makes it increasingly infeasible to argue that Steelers or Star Wars fans are not themselves already the “mainstream.” Nevertheless, extending that fandom to some of our most stable death rituals does perhaps underscore the significance of fan identity.
In the context of funerary ritual fandom somewhat counter-intuitively revolves around disarming humor and establishing what survivors often interpret as testimony to fans’ individuality. Many fan funerals aspire to simply provide levity and impress the deceased’s personality onto the staid and often-unpleasant emotional rituals associated with funerals. These funerals introduce some new trappings like a Starship Enterprise cremains urn or a KISS Kasket (former Pantera guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was buried in one), but they may not be especially substantive challenges to basic funeral rituals. For instance, the sight of solemn stormtroopers escorting a casket through Cardiff is less a challenge to the sanctity of funerals than to their tendency to de-personalize the deceased. Gordon Deacon appeared in many ways to have had a relatively standard memorial service and burial, but he secured some measure of respect from friends and observers alike because his final ritual embraced his lifelong passions.
Many fan funerals are similarly modest shifts in traditional funeral practice, typically including changes like clothing or music to celebrate the fans’ passion in life. For instance, when 87-year-old metalhead Owen Brown died in 2013 his family chose the Megadeth song Skin of My Teeth for the final procession departing the church. In 2013 Washington Redskins fan Mark Lindamood died, and the hundreds of bereaved friends at his service sang “Hail to the Redskins.” Like many sports fans, Lindamood was buried in a jersey, in his case the jersey for Robert Griffin III, which the superstitious fan had been unwilling to wear in life for fear that he would jinx the rookie quarterback. A team flag was draped over the 33-year-old fan’s casket, and “attendees were encouraged to wear Redskins gear, and probably 80 percent of them did.”
In July 2014 the obituary for Toronto Maple Leafs’ fan Terry Siebert sarcastically observed that “It was Terry’s last wish that his pallbearers be the Toronto Maple Leafs so they could let him down one last time” (in the absence of the Leafs’ players, Siebert’s pallbearers wore Leafs’ jerseys). Last week the Daily Mail reported on Preston, England’s Linda Moon, who has terminal cancer and is planning a funeral at which grievers are expected to wear Preston North End Football Club kit (similar examples include funerals at which survivors wore LeBron James or Philadelphia Eagles jerseys).
Some of these fan memorials stake a claim to “individuality” simply by breaking from conservative rituals while remaining firmly rooted in consumer fandoms. The funeral industry itself is enormously flexible, married less to century-old rituals than a satisfying consumer experience. For instance, much of ESPN’s fascinating 2012 Spirit of the Fan piece on sports fan funerals is told by funeral directors who appear committed to serving families. A host of enterprises market branded funeral goods ranging from Major League Baseball-approved caskets, urns, and monuments to Star Trek cremation urns. Yet most of these funerals remain outside the pale of profiteering for the present, orchestrated instead by family and friends. In fandom-themed funerals those survivors acknowledge the passions of those who died and perhaps once more confirm that fandom is commonplace in many more peoples’ lives than we may recognize.
Gordon Deacon funeral carriage image from Wales Online
Red Sox casket image from Brand Memorials
Starship Enterprise urn image from Crazy Coffins
TARDIS casket image from the Daily Mail
Terry Siebert Maple Leafs image from Omar Sachedina