5 Funerals That Went Off the Rails
Last week, we were treated to two very weird stories in the news. In one, a woman in Ecuador died, after having previously been falsely declared dead and having previously awoken in her coffin at her funeral. In another, a man faked his death and staged his own funeral, as a TikTok stunt.
These stories prompt a question: Has the whole world gone mad? The answer to that, of course, is yes. However, they really got us thinking about how funerals are always ripe for weirdness. It’s the one event where “someone died” is the normal and best outcome. Beyond that, things can go nuts, and quick.
The Departed Showed Up. His Dad Wasn’t Pleased
In 1913, a huge freighter sank on Lake Huron, because the Great Lakes (in case you hadn’t heard) are pretty huge. The last we saw of the SS James Carruthers were the bushels of wheat it was holding hitting shore. The ship itself presumably sank, but we never found the wreckage.
What we did find were some bodies that washed ashore, which people spotted even before the wheat. Tom Thompson, whose son John had been part of the crew, looked over the bodies to see if his son were among those found. Sure enough, one body had a tattoo of the initials “J.T.” on his arm, just like John had had. It had deformed toes, like Tom, and similar dental features. It had familiar scars on the legs and nose, too. And while the rest of the face was unidentifiable, that all added up to what sounds like a convincing case for a positive I.D., even today.
Except, that wasn’t John. And in fact, John hadn’t been on the freighter at all — Tom had just heard he’d been, incorrectly. John was in Toronto when he read his own death notice in the newspaper. He now headed home to prove that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, but he took his time getting there, stopping at a friend’s first and not bothering to call ahead.
When he did show up, his wake was underway. Tom wasn’t happy about having had to go through days of needless trauma, and he especially wasn’t happy about having had to needlessly pay for the burial plot. “It's just like you to come home and attend your own wake,” he said to John. “And you can get right out of this house until this thing blows over!”
A General Attended a Rival’s Funeral and Died
If you were having trouble distinguishing John Thompson and Tom Thompson in our last story, we have another generic name for you: Joe Johnston. Johnston was a general in the Confederacy, and in April 1865, he surrendered directly to Union General William Sherman. It was the biggest surrender of the war, and other Confederates referred to his decision as treason.
Those several days of surrender negotiations were enough to turn Johnston and Sherman into friends. Try debating something in a room with a stranger for several drunken hours one night yourself, and you'll see the same thing happen to you (unfortunately, this does not work when debating over the internet). Sherman would go on to praise Johnston, while not extending the same respect to Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis. Johnston, meanwhile, was said to forbid anyone around him from criticizing Sherman.
When Sherman died in 1891, Johnston showed up as a pallbearer. It was a cold day, and most men wore hats, but Johnston refused. He caught a cold that day. Pneumonia set in, and he was dead in 10 days. “If I were in his place, and he were standing here in mine,” he had said at the funeral, “he would not put on his hat.” We're not so sure about that. Look back at the illustration above. Sherman had no problem keeping his hat on there.
Stalin Threw Himself into His Wife’s Grave Then Had to Flee the Police
Before Joseph Stalin was Joseph Stalin, he was a young man named Soso, who married a woman named Kato. Kato died in 1907, and Stalin declared, “This creature softened my heart of stone. She died, and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He would never love again. Unless you count the 14-year-old he impregnated at the age of 35 (he abandoned her and her child). Or his second wife, whom he drove to suicide. Or his sister-in-law, or his housekeeper, with whom he’s merely alleged to have had affairs.
At Koko’s funeral, Stalin threw himself in the grave as they were lowering the coffin down. If he’d studied Shakespeare properly, he would have known that this is not an appropriate expression of love but simply a way of painting a guy as a drama queen. The real drama hit after that, however. Agents from the Okhrana showed up. Those were Russia’s anti-revolutionary investigators — Stalin didn’t invent the concept of the secret police, you see, he’d just perfect it. In 1907, Stalin was a police target, so despite his supposed devotion, he scampered out of funeral early, by running away and hopping a fence.
“My personal life is shattered,” said Stalin after that. “Nothing else attaches me to life except socialism. I’m going to dedicate my existence to that!” And we all know how that ended for everyone.
At a Japanese Musician’s Funeral, Someone Killed Herself, and Hundreds Collapsed
A Japanese guitarist named hide (name spelled in lowercase, just one part of his wild persona) was huge in the 1980s and 1990s. He had a band named Saber Tiger and a band named X Japan. At the end of his career, he had a band named Spread Beaver, the innuendo of which might have been more subtle if you spoke Japanese. In 1998, he was found dead in his hotel room with a towel around his neck. Millions of kids mourned him, not just in the way kids mourn a pop idol but because he was one of the few rebel symbols in Japanese culture at the time.
The death was followed by what the media called copycat suicides, with five teens separately trying to kill themselves while surrounded by imagery of the artist. The irony here is that hide might not have killed himself at all. He put the towel around his neck, sure, but there are a number of reasons a drunk rock star might want to cut off their breathing for a bit in pursuit of gratification.
So, numerous people tried killing themselves following the man’s death, but the craziest part was that one teen succeeded at this by cutting her wrists at the wake itself. This wake was followed by a funeral that 50,000 people attended on the hottest day of the year. Hundreds of people collapsed from the heat, and more than 50 had to be hospitalized. It was a most inefficient day for Tokyo, and critics who’d called hide a bad influence felt deeply vindicated.
The Departed Showed Up and Outed the Murderer
In 2015, Balenga Kalala informed friends that his wife Noela had died in an accident. This would not be the first tragedy he’d experienced. Back when he’d lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo, rebel soldiers had killed his first wife and son, and he’d fled to Australia. He’d met Noela Rukundo there, married her and had three kids with her. Now, he announced that she’d died, and he had friends come over for a sort of memorial. Some mourners donated money, as is custom. Then, at 7:30 in the evening, Noela stopped by.
She hadn’t died. Kalala had merely assumed she’d died because he’d paid assassins to kill her when she was out of the country, going home to attend a funeral. His stated motive: He feared she was going to leave him for another man.
The team he hired had abducted her, and Noela heard his voice telling them to kill her when they checked in with him by phone. But after she passed out and spent a couple days in their care, it seems they started to sympathize with her. Some commentators dub this phenomenon Lima syndrome, a reversal of Stockholm syndrome, but neither is a medical term, just a name for something that might happen during kidnappings but probably won’t.
They let her go and even gave her evidence that could implicate Kalala. After returning home to a repentant Kalala, Noela got a restraining order against him and then recorded him confessing to his crimes, in case records provided by unreachable criminals in Burundi weren’t admissible in Australian courts. Kalala eventually got nine years in prison on a charge of incitement to murder. As for the gang of assassins, we can only assume that they turned their lives around, using their skills to take down evildoers as masked vigilantes.