Psychiatrist Uses Laughs to Ponder Death

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Psychiatrist Joel Schwartz wants to put the “fun” back in funerals.

Did that make you laugh a little, even as you squirmed?

Good, because Schwartz, the “Stress Less Shrink” who once served as the chairman of the department of psychiatry at Abington Memorial Hospital, wants to talk about a topic most people shy away from — death and dying — and make listeners laugh in the process.


With a friend, psychologist and Philadelphian Steve Wilson, Schwartz spent eight months developing a talk, “Laugh, Will and Testament,” to discuss how laughter is often overlooked as a coping mechanism for surviving the most difficult times of a person’s life.

As both Wilson and Schwartz have discussed before the role of humor through programs and talks they’ve given, the idea of using humor to talk about a not-so-funny topic presented itself as a way to make it more approachable.

“When we told people about wanting to do this, you should’ve seen the expressions,” said Schwartz, who belongs to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, where he gave his talk recently. “Nobody wants to hear about death and dying — that’s the reason we’re doing this. Because if you can wrap yourself around the concept that you’re not going to live forever and that you can plan and come to terms with it, it becomes a very helpful talk.”

In the presentation, Schwartz points to funny obituaries people have submitted or even tombstones that people have infused with humor, such as the late television show host Merv Griffin, whose tombstone reads, “I will not be right back after this message.”

Merv Griffin’s tombstone, which reads, “I will not be right back after this message.” | Wikimedia Commons

“It makes it more palatable,” Schwartz said. “It sort of softens you up to think about it, to talk about it, to approach your family and have them talk about it.”

While some may be put off by the idea, Schwartz encourages them to come into the talk with an open mind, as the value of humor is greater than the fear of discussing the topic.

“Some people say it’s disrespectful to be humorous in this situation — it really isn’t,” he said. “It should be part of your grieving, grief toolbox to help you get through the situation, this shock absorber. We tell people there are two things that most people do with greater frequency in middle age: urinate and attend funerals.”

Schwartz will ask people when they come in some questions to get them to start thinking about the subject.

“We have a handout that asks them, ‘What would your last words be? What would you like on your tombstone? What do you want to accomplish in your life?’ Just to get people to think about this and hopefully create a discussion,” he said. “The more you can talk about this, the more palatable it becomes.”

The importance in thinking about mortality — which Schwartz acknowledged usually isn’t at the top of people’s daily to-do lists — is that it’s still off-putting to do so, which is why Schwartz encourages you to do it.

“Death still remains as a topic that you can’t talk about and there are many euphem-

isms for death,” he said. “So people can say instead of ‘somebody died,’ they say they reached the finish line, traded to the angels, faced a formaldehyde turkey, bit the dust — all these euphemisms for death and dying because it’s such a difficult subject.”

The use of humor makes the topic less intense. He recalled a picture he saw of a cemetery and a real estate sign advertising a home for sale, and it said, “Quiet neighbors across the street.”

Humor also plays a role in Judaism when it comes to death, he noted. For instance, when sitting shiva there are usually more laughs than tears.

“Shiva’s very therapeutic and if you’ve ever been to a shiva, you notice some people are crying but many people are laughing and bringing out funny stories,” he said.

Humor has played a role in Schwartz’s life since he was in medical school at Hahnemann and thinking about what he wanted to do.

When a child psychiatrist came in to talk to his class one day, Schwartz noticed that the doctor was personable and told funny stories, which appealed to him — he was also too clumsy to be a surgeon, he laughed.

“I haven’t really grown past 12, so I figured it would give me an advantage,” he joked.

He ultimately had his own practice in addition to running a residency training program at Hahnemann and serving as head of child and adolescent services at  what is now Brooke Glen Behavioral Hospital.

He hopes that the talks will help people embrace the topic rather than disregard it.

“If you don’t talk about it, and you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to be upset by it,” he said. “Whereas, we’re saying the opposite — think about it, talk about it, and you will be less upset by it.”

Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0740

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