Welcome to today’s Coronavirus Cinema collection. I’m Gail Rubin, the Doyenne of Death, with film recommendations for hunkering down at home. These movies entertain while educating about funeral planning issues and planning ahead for end of life.
Today we’re looking at funeral related films that are Based on A True Story. As the title suggests, all of these movies have a real-life basis, although Hollywood does have a way of changing up details.
If you click on the film titles, they have Amazon affiliate links that provide instant streaming access or the opportunity to buy the DVD.
The 2009 film Get Low, starring Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek, is based on a true story of a man who wanted to have a funeral party while he was still alive.
Felix “Bush” Breazeale was a bachelor in Tennessee who started his funeral party plans in 1938. His funeral plan was first reported by the Roane County Banner, and the story went viral – it was picked up by the Associated Press and United Press wire services and LIFE magazine.
When the event was held on June 26, 1938, the crowd was estimated at 8 to 12 thousand people. Cars from 14 states were backed up two miles to the two Cave Creek Baptist Churches (built side to side – one Primitive, the other Missionary) where the event was held. An enterprising John Cook charged 25 cents per car to park in his neighboring field, and he was reported to have made $300. Vendors of soft drinks and hot dogs did a flourishing business. Flowers were sent from Knoxville and Chattanooga.
Felix was late to his own funeral due to traffic along the road. The Hawkins Mortuary hearse arrived with Bush in the front seat and a home-made walnut coffin in the back of the vehicle. People held their children high to get a glimpse, and 10 people fainted from the heat and excitement. Reporters and cameramen from the newspapers for Knoxville and Chattanooga covered the event.
Felix went on to become quite the celebrity. He was featured in Robert Ripley’s syndicated column, and he took Bush to New York City for a radio interview – the 1938 equivalent of being flown to the Big Apple to be interviewed on the TODAY Show.
He actually lived five years beyond his funeral party. Born in June 1864, he died on February 9, 1943 at the age of 78. He was buried in the graveyard where his funeral party took place.
Get Low features the idea of planning ahead for your own funeral arrangements, and the idea of a living funeral – being alive to hear what people might say about you.
The 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons is based on the true story of what happened to Gram Parsons’ body after he died.
Parsons was an influential country rock musician who played with Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons died in 1973 from a morphine overdose at the age of 26 in a motel room near Joshua Tree National Monument.
Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. His road manager Phil Kaufman and he had a pact. Whoever died first, the other would take the body to Joshua Tree and “set his spirit free,” that is, set the body on fire. Which is what Kaufman did, with the help of a friend. They used five gallons of gasoline, which caused a huge explosion.
In the true story, police chased Kaufman and his friend after they set Parson’s body on fire, but the pair got away. The men were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 pounds of Parsons’ charred remains in the desert.
Grand Theft Parsons has lessons about wills, who can handle funeral arrangements for you, and thoughts about family taking precedence over friends when it comes to funerals.
Bernie is the strange but true story of mild-mannered assistant funeral home director Bernie Tiede who befriends a much-hated wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent. She takes advantage of his sweet nature and becomes demanding. He leaves the funeral home to become her personal assistant.
The pressure drives him to kill her on November 19, 1996 and he hides her body in a freezer. Then he goes on a spending spree with her money, much of which supports the community in Carthage, Texas. He goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she’s still alive for months. Finally, the jig is up. He’s convicted of her death and sentenced to life in prison.
The film is based on an article by Skip Hollandsworth that appeared in the January 1998 issue of Texas Monthly magazine, titled “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in East Texas.”
The 2012 film starts Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine. Black met with Bernie Tiede while he was serving a life sentence in a Texas prison. As a result of the film, a new sentencing hearing took place and Tiede was released on bond in May 2014.
But the Nugent family was furious and filed for a new sentencing trial. In April 2016, after a three-week trial with 80 witnesses, within four hours, the jury returned with a guilty verdict and Tiede was returned to jail for a life sentence. He may yet get another day in court. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2029. Read the details in this Texas Monthly magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth.
Bernie offers lessons on the many roles a funeral director plays and shows how corpse cosmetology works.
The tagline for this 2019 film is “Based on a true lie.” A grandmother in China is kept in the dark about her cancer diagnosis, and her scattered family gathers in their homeland to honor her. They use the pretense of attending the wedding of her grandson.
The Farewell shows Chinese funeral traditions such as burning paper representations of material goods to send them to the afterworld and a ritual cemetery visit.
If you’ve got other funny funeral films to recommend, please post a comment! For more Coronavirus Cinema recommendations, like this YouTube channel, and give this video a thumbs up.
By the way, Gail Rubin can do virtual presentations with clips from these and other films. Send a note if you’d like to talk! I’m Gail Rubin, the Doyenne of Death, reminding you to wash your hands and remember, just like talking about sex won’t make you pregnant, talking about funerals and end of life issues won’t make you dead. Start a conversation today.