Saturday, November 1, 2014

Live from the Funeral Channel

Some men find their true calling in a factory, or on an oil rig, or serving their country. Others lead more glamorous lives as an astronaut, or professional baseball player, or even Nobel Prize winning scientist. Then there are those who end up as commentators for celebrity weddings, and even better, celebrity funerals.

Should you have tuned in late (no pun intended) to The Funeral Channel’s coverage of The Funeral of Benjamin Crowninshield Bradlee—formerly of The Washington Post and Watergate fame—this is what you might have heard as commentators Rick Bryant (as in yours truly) and his colleague Mags Nash wrapped up that day’s special live broadcast from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Ben Bradlee
Mags: So, Rick, what are your closing thoughts on today’s service?

Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee in 1971.
Rick: Well according to the Funeral Channel’s Mourn-O-Meter, this is unofficial Washington’s biggest funeral since, interestingly enough, that of Bradlee’s boss, none other than Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham. Of course, that’s not counting the yearly funeral for the Redskin’s playoff hopes—viewed by thousands of fans at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. That usually happens in late September.

Final wife Marlena and Jack Kent Cooke enjoy a day out in Alexandria, July 1992
M: Speaking of the Redskins, I wish we could have covered former 'Skins owner Jack Kent Cooke’s funeral. That would have been a hum-dinger. Five marriages to three different women, including a former Bolivian drug runner. That’s something out of a novel you’d buy at an airport.

R: There's all this chatter about the Redskins' name now. I don’t give a rat’s ass about the team’s name; though I do understand the concerns of others. I just want them to ditch Daniel Snyder and bring Jack Kent Cooke back as the team’s owner, even if he is technically dead and has been for seventeen years. The score: Jack Kent Cooke three Super Bowl victories; Dan Snyder, Zero. Need I say more?

But back to Katharine Graham.

Katharine Graham, a photo that appeared on the cover of her autobiography, "Personal History".
M: Oh yes, Mrs. Graham’s was a classic. You know it’s a simple equation. Dropping dead before you’re feeble means a crowded funeral. Studies show that funerals for people with dementia are 43% less crowded that those who exit stage left with all their faculties. Mrs. Graham was still going strong and one little fall….Bam!

R: The next thing you know, Henry Kissinger is treating a overflowing National Cathedral not to mention C-Span viewers at home to the story of when he and Mrs. Graham went to Las Vegas with Edward Bennett Williams and they all got matching tattoos on their kiesters of an elephant and donkey doing the hokey pokey.

Don't forget, you can download highlights of that service at

M: So, now that guests are filing out of the cathedral and are trying to figure out how to use the Uber app while they wait for cabs, let’s talk about the take aways at today’s event. 

R: That's the first time I've ever heard John Phillip Sousa as the recessional!

M:  Yes, but, the Widow Bradlee, otherwise known as the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn did NOT look as though she enjoyed it.  Why do think she chose it? Or did someone else pick that?

R:  For starters, it’s been well known in Washington social circles that she was the decider in that family. Ben Bradlee’s car sported a white oval decal with the letters PW on it for a reason. And it wasn't because he belonged to Presbyterian Women.

M: Oh Rick! 

R: And really, Sally never shies away from “making a statement”.

To someone with more Sousa on his iPod than the most rabid Marine Band groupie, the upbeat opening bars of The Washington Post March were instantly recognizable. And Mags, that tune said to me, let’s skip the interment and head on over to the house for martoonies and nibblies. And perhaps, when the distant cousins leave and they’re down to the hard corps, a game of “Cards Against Humanity”. Wouldn’t you agree?

M: Good point, Rick.

R: The musical choice that I found entirely questionable was the treacle-y opening salvo, Evergreen. Barbra Streisand…really? It was mandatory at every gay man’s funeral in Dupont Circle in the 1990s. I thought the new anti-viral meds not only killed HIV but also that song. Wrong.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein looking terrible.
M: Let’s talk about the audience for a sec. How many folks did you recognize? Six? Eight? Carl and Bob (who both look terrible) Tom Brokaw.

Then there was Vice President Biden and his wife Dr. Jill Biden—who apparently doesn’t own a black dress. I ask you, how can you be married to a guy whose job is to go to funerals and not own a decent black dress? 

R: By decent, Mags, you mean demure and funereal, rather than, something you’d wear when you’d booked a room at the Mayflower after the company Christmas party when your husband just started taking Viagra?

M: Precisely. 

R: Apparently this black dress issue isn’t covered in the West Wing’s employee handbook. Six years into the Obama Administration we now know that fashion-wise, if it’s not in J Crew, they don’t have it.

M: In the sort of second team of guests, there were Secretary of State Kerry, Andrea Mitchell, and interestingly enough, right up front Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer.

R: But no Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Mags, Do her follow the Tumblr about her, Notorious R.G.B.?

Mags: What’s a Tumblr?

R: Just Google it. It’s a heck of a lot funnier than the jokes at today’s event. 

M: Then there was Martha Raddatz. She used to be married to Ben, Jr. Apparently the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in staying married to your first wife department.

All in all a very poor showing for an illustrious D.C. funeral in the cathedral, no less!  Even worse, I saw empty seats on the sidelines.

R: Washington’s better funeral planners typically prefer to use the deceased’s home church or synagogue for an event like this. You always want to have the house be a little smaller than the audience. First of all, they’re always no-shows—some folks just don’t appreciate a good funeral. And secondly, you wanna make ‘em scrunch up a bit. Nothing like having the person sitting on top of you sniffling to get the tears flowing.

M: Rick, let talk about humor, I know you think that’s an essential part of a good funeral. In fact, you enjoy a knee-slapping eulogy more than anyone I know. At some of those clearly-meant-to-be-funny moments, did you sense well, restrained laughter of the sort you save for a joke you’ve heard your company’s CEO tell at least three times?

R: I thought that was one of the most notable things about today’s event. Sure, there is that faux horror of hearing the word “dickhead” in church, even if it is an Episcopal church. The same thing goes with the old chestnut--Kay Graham’s tit-in-a-wringer story.

But on a more serious note, when you finally cross the Jordan at age 93—after a few euphemistically labeled “twilight years” in nursing home that overlooks the 14th fairway at Burning Tree—your best work is decades behind you. And when those saddled with doing the eulogies are going to do old material, you need to have the delivery of a Johnny Carson or—to bring up someone whose funeral we just covered a few weeks ago—Joan Rivers.

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, just because you can meet Deep Throat in a parking garage doesn’t mean you can do a good job with a story that’s already in the Oxford Book of Political Anecdotes.

M:  My feelings exactly. If they were such good friends, they should have told the story about the time that Ben Bradlee mistook Hilary Clinton for Marcia Shemick, who does alterations at Davison’s Dry Cleaners on K Street. He wanted her to measure his inseam.

R: Are you sure he wasn’t just hitting on Mrs. Clinton? Talk about a sure sign of dementia! 

Looking at the congregation, my guess was that it was a paid holiday at the Washington Post Company.  The newspaper business doesn’t have many perks but this would be one of them. Presumably all those folks in who are responsible for the supermarket fliers were going back to their desks rather than to chez Bradlee in Georgetown for the big reception.

The late Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire
M: Today’s funeral is quite a nice contrast with the recent do for the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, don’t you think?

R: You can say that again. Well, no one does a funeral like the Brits. They might have lost all their colonies, but they did not lose sight of how to plant a VIP with style.  And I’m not just talking about that three hanky job they threw for Princess Diana.

Granted, the Duchess was quite a character. And as we say, dull people have dull funerals, and the Duchess was anything but dull.

Jessica, Nancy, Diana, Unity and Pamela Mitford in 1935
M: That’s right. While her full name was Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford Cavendish, friends called her “Debo”.  Her father was an English peer and her mother occupied that no-man's land between long suffering and stiff upper lip. Both the parents were, as we say on New York’s Upper East Side,  “emotionally distant”.

The Duchess was the youngest of a brood that included, among others,  the novelist Nancy Mitford, a Hitler groupie named—get this—Unity Valkyrie—and—how apropos, the author of The American Way of Death and well-known out-and-proud pinko, Jessica Mitford. And those are just the siblings you can explain in a sound bite!

Yes, that's Prince Charles and the Missus, who unlike Dr. Jill Biden owns a black dress, walking in the funeral procession.
R: Debo took a show business axiom to heart—always leave ‘em wanting more. Her service, from starter’s orders to the finish line, clocked in at thirty minutes. Ben Bradlee's, however, came in at a bladder busting—at least for us old folks—two hours. And, what’s more, the Duchess’s service featured a recording of Elvis singing How Great Thou Art, a hymn that’s guaranteed to cause a Niagara of tears, at least among Protestants.

Compared to Elvis, Streisand covered by some schmoe is strictly bush league.

The Duchess’s staffers at Chatsworth, which, by the by, makes Downton Abbey seem like something on Baltic or Mediterranean Avenue, participated in the event, wearing their uniforms and lining the drive between the house and the charming and appropriately small parish church. Truly extraordinary. They knew that without the Duchess’s positively American entrepreneurial spirit, they wouldn’t have jobs.

She rescued the place from a mountain of debt, wrote a shelf full of amusing and erudite books, and still had time to be the grandmother of a supermodel. And, something I know regular Funeral Channel viewers will particularly enjoy, the Duchess was a Kennedy in-law and particular favorite of President Kennedy.

M: I also need to point out the Duchess’s wicker casket covered with a family spray of native flowers. Wasn’t that simply out of this world?

The HQ of Longaberger Basket Company. Yep, that's one big basket.
R: After seeing that, I heard that John Glenn, the astronaut and former Senator from Ohio, asked the Longaberger Basket Company of Newark, OH to create a special funeral hamper so that he could promote Buckeye State products while he’s on his way to his final resting spot at Arlington National Cemetery.

M: Oh! I read that in People magazine while I was getting my roots done, so it must be true.

Looking ahead, Rick, who do you think we have in the pipeline?

R: Well, our oldest former Presidents are Carter and George Bush 41. They can’t live forever, but Carter, as you know, is planning on having his funeral at the Carter Center in Atlanta. He probably wants all the guests to wear lanyards as if they’re at a conference on waste hauling or something. The Carter Center is not exactly an architectural wonder—the Plains Baptist Church, which I understand is in a converted K-Mart, would be an improvement. Don’t look for us to break away from regularly scheduled programming for that.

M: Bush 41, now that should be a good one. Unlike Jerry Ford, his funeral should actually be shorter than his presidency.

And Republicans tend to dress better than Democrats, always a plus. And as a G.O.P affair, you sure as heck know that there won’t be any Barbra Streisand. However, God Bless the USA sung by Lee Greenwood backed up by the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets Glee Club is a definite possibility. Even at a funeral, Rick, there’s something about a man in uniform.

R: And then there’s Ethel Kennedy. Let me just say that if there is a God, she’ll go during sweeps weeks.

M: Ha! You're such a card! You almost made me spit out my coffee!

R: Well that about does it for our special coverage of the Ben Bradlee Funeral here at Washington’s National Cathedral. Receiving Line Horror Stories and the Cremation Chronicles will return next week at their regularly schedule times. 

I’m Rick Bryant.

M: And I’m Mags Nash, signing off for The Funeral Channel.


  1. Rick, you devil. This post may come back to haunt you.

  2. No doubt there will be a long list of things that will haunt me.