By Gail Rubin
(Spoiler Alert) Now that the award-winning TV series Breaking Bad has finished its run, if you plan to watch past episodes and don’t want to know how it ends, don’t read this blog post.
(Still reading? Don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Walter White, who evolves from mild-mannered science teacher to meth manufacturer and drug lord, dies in the last episode of Breaking Bad.
Here in Albuquerque, where the series was based and filmed, local fans released a torrent of emotion. Their tributes included a paid obituary in the newspaper and a funeral — for a fictional TV character! It’s an interesting commentary on the perceived value of funeral services.
On October 3, members of the Unofficial Breaking Bad Fan Tour Facebook page placed a paid obituary in the Albuquerque Journal. Here’s how it read:
WHITE, WALTER: a.k.a. “Heisenberg,” 52, of Albuquerque, died Sunday after a long battle with lung cancer, and a gunshot wound. A co-founder of Gray Matter, White was a research chemist who taught high school chemistry, and later founded a meth manufacturing empire. He is survived by his wife, Skyler Lambert; son Walter “Flynn” Jr.; and daughter Holly. A private memorial was held by his family. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to a drug abuse prevention charity of your choice. He will be greatly missed.
The announcement, which included a photo of actor Bryan Cranston as Walter White, ran in another part of the paper separate from the real death announcements. That issue of the newspaper sold out in many locations, and out-of-state orders poured in to the Journal’s circulation department.
The online story about the obituary became the most-read article on the newspaper’s website since they started keeping track in 2006. According to the Albuquerque Journal, the obituary itself or news about it was posted to a myriad of websites including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Seattle Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, MSN, Yahoo, Variety, TMZ, The Atlantic, E-online, US News and World Report, and the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.
During Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta the first two weekends of October, the hottest item for balloon pins was a Walter White/Breaking Bad pin. Balloon pins are usually created for real balloons. There is not currently an actual Walter White balloon. Nonetheless, there was a run on the limited edition “Ballooning Bad” pin.
Then a group of fans approached FRENCH Funerals-Cremations about holding a graveside funeral service for Walter White at Sunset Memorial Park. The event would double as a fundraiser for Albuquerque’s Health Care for the Homeless.
The idea evolved quickly from theory to reality within four days – much like a real-life funeral. More than 200 people attended the event on October 19. Fans came from across the United States, as well as from England and Ireland.
“The goal was, number one, to raise money for a good cause,” said Tom Antram, CEO of FRENCH Funerals-Cremations, which operates Sunset Memorial Park.
He continued, “Number two, it was to raise awareness of what [Walter White] died from. He lived a lifestyle that is common in New Mexico – drugs are prevalent everywhere. We thought this would be a great opportunity for people to realize that living that type of a lifestyle ends up at the cemetery.”
More than $15,000 was raised for Albuquerque’s Health Care for the Homeless from proceeds related to the funeral.
The funeral procession started at the Walter White descanso in Albuquerque’s North Valley. Descansos are a common sight in the Southwest. They are roadside memorials, usually in the shape of a cross, that mark the spot where someone dies. The procession included Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies, the beat-up tan RV made famous in the show, a hearse and 80 cars carrying diehard fans. The procession shut down streets and took 10 minutes to pass.
Sunset Memorial Park officials agreed to hold the funeral after being assured they could remove the memorial should it become an attraction. The rectangular tombstone was to be installed in an unused space apart from actual cemetery plots.
Some families with loved ones in the cemetery were upset by the idea of a Walter White headstone there. The negative reaction story was picked up in the local news media. The headstone was never set and is now enshrined at Vernon’s Hidden Valley Steakhouse, the restaurant in Albuquerque’s North Valley that organized the funeral.
Why did so many get caught up in memorializing a TV character? And why do people hesitate to do the same for real people in their lives?
Funeral attendees said they were there to pay their respects and find some kind of closure. While that’s what funerals are designed to do, remember, this was a fictional person who entered people’s homes through a TV program on Sunday evenings. Yet, fans felt they knew and loved Walter White.
With Walter White’s memorialization in mind, ask yourself: How would your obituary read? What would you want done with your body? Would people flock to your funeral? Before there’s an unexpected death – hopefully, not by gunshot – plan ahead and have the conversation.
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Gail Rubin is author of the award-winning book A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and The Family Plot Blog. Her 12-episode TV show, also called A Good Goodbye, is now available in a 4-DVD set. Rubin is a Certified Celebrant and death educator who uses funny films to help start funeral planning conversations. Her website is https://agoodgoodbye.com.