By Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®
Whenever I mention funeral films, invariably those of the baby boomer generation cite Harold and Maude, a cult classic comedy film from 1971. Ironically, while this movie is remembered for the main characters attending the funerals of people they don’t know, there are only two funerals depicted during the film. The message of living life to the fullest made Harold and Maude an outstanding story that endures.
Harold is a young man from a wealthy family who is fascinated with death and makes a regular habit of faking suicides to try and rattle his self-absorbed mother. Maude is a free-spirited 79-year-old woman with a breezy outlook on life. Maude introduces herself to Harold at a funeral by sneaking up behind him in the church and offering him a liquorice stick.
Their conversation as the casket rolls by at the end of the funeral is insightful.
Maude: “Did you know him?”
Maude: “Me neither. I heard he’s 80 years old! I’ll be 80 next week. Good time to move on, don’t you think?”
Harold: “I don’t know.”
Maude: “I mean, 75 is too early, but at 85 you’re just marking time. May as well go look over the horizon.”
The sly humor in the film jumps out with a close up of the Permaseal label on the casket and the audio of a brass band as the deceased is wheeled out. A parade passes by on the street as the casket is loaded into the hearse. The commentary, as I see it: once you are dead, the parade of life passes you by, so make the most of it while you’re still here!
Maude hops into a Volkswagen and drives off. Turns out, it’s the minister’s car that she’s just stolen.
The second funeral is graveside in the rain. Maude is the only one at the funeral with a bright yellow umbrella. She meets Harold a second time by stealing his hearse, a great hulk of a 1950s model. She invites him for a ride and takes it careening through the cemetery. Maude’s comments as she drives around show she’s not afraid of death and that it’s all part of life.
Maude: “What a delight it is, Harold, to bump into you again! I knew we were going to be good friends the moment I saw you. You go to funerals often, don’t you?”
Harold: “Uh, yeah.”
Maude: “Yeah, so do I. They’re such fun, aren’t they? It’s change, all revolving, burials and births, one linked to the other, the great circle of life.”
When Maude discovers the hearse is Harold’s, she insists he drive her home. When they get there, she explains how she got all these keys that start just about any car and why she does it:
Harold: “You hop in any car you want and just drive off?”
Maude: “Well, not any car, I like to keep a variety. I’m always looking for the new experience.”
Harold: “Maybe. Nevertheless, I think you’re upsetting people. I don’t know if that’s right.”
Maude: “Well, some people get upset because they feel they have a hold on some things. I’m merely acting as a gentle reminder, here today, gone tomorrow, so don’t get attached to things. Now, with that in mind, I’m not against collecting stuff.”
Harold obsesses over deathly topics. Harold tells his shrink that he has no friends, then reconsiders that perhaps he might have one friend. His mother tries to set him up with dates through a national dating service and he rattles the prospective girlfriends by setting himself on fire, chopping off his hand, and committing seppuku, a.k.a. hara-kiri, Japanese ritual suicide (all faked, of course).
Maude is all about living life to the fullest, while recognizing death as part of the cycle. The pair has a grand adventure saving a struggling tree from an urban existence. She helps Harold see the good in life and living.
In the first line of the film, after spotting Harold hanging from a noose in the living room, Mom says, “I suppose you think that’s very funny, Harold… Oh, dinner at eight, Harold. And do try and be a little more vivacious.” Mom gets rid of Harold’s big old hearse and gives him a Jaguar. Harold promptly takes a blowtorch to the car and turns it into a mini-hearse. (My husband wants that car!)
A sweet romance blossoms between Harold and Maude in the short week that they know each other. I won’t spoil the ending for you. Let’s just say Maude’s freewheeling attitude toward life and death is instructive for us all.
Harold and Maude also has a great soundtrack treasured by collectors. The songs in the film by Cat Stevens, who now goes by the name Yusuf Islam, include “Where Do the Children Play?” “On the Road to Find Out” “Trouble” “Tea for the Tillerman” “Miles from Nowhere” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”
Harold and Maude is available on Netflix and through Amazon.com on DVD and as a streaming download. Rated PG.
Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®, helps start serious conversations by presenting talks that use funny films to illustrate funeral planning issues.