Town and Country
How the Celebrity Funeral Became the New Royal Wedding
by BOB MORRIS
AUG 16, 2017
t was a perfect day for a burial Mass—cool, not cold, poetically overcast but not raining. The traffic on Fifth Avenue had been stopped for blocks around St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and I was part of a small crowd taking in the imposing occasion of the death of Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the retired archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York. We stood behind barricades while an endless line of priests in white processed past TV cameras. Two bagpipe troupes in capes, kilts, and plumed hats played “Going Home,” a favorite dirge that brought a lump to my throat and reminded me of the purpose of the grand and colorful spectacle.
“Rest his soul, he was a nice man,” one woman said, sighing. “What a waste of money,” I heard another say.
I didn’t think so. Heads of state and religious figures, after all, are supposed to have imposing funerals. What surprises me more these days is how ornate death has become for private citizens, with one dazzling service after the next as if it were ball season in Vienna.
Not so long ago funerals for most people were somber affairs. Now death has joined weddings, bar mitzvahs, and fundraisers as another showcase for vanity.
Did you attend the memorial for photographer Bill Cunningham at Carnegie Hall last October, where Anna Wintour read a Lord Byron poem? Maybe the one at Lincoln Center for plastic surgeon Fredric Brandt, with the massive wall of white orchids? What about the service at the Hollywood Hills Cemetery for Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, which featured a tribute film and a special “live” appearance by R2-D2? Then there was Garry Marshall’s memorial, where Bette Midler sang and the entire marching band from Northwestern, his alma mater, paraded through the Northridge Performing Arts Center.
The fashion world, meanwhile, took over Milan’s Duomo for Vogue Italia editor Franca Sozzani’s memorial in February. In April it descended on St. Patrick’s for Santiago Barberi Gonzalez’s service. Two years earlier it had flocked to Manhattan’s Church of St. Ignatius Loyola to say goodbye to Oscar de la Renta (the crowd is pictured in the image at the top of this post).
“It was so beautiful,” says Cornelia Guest, who wore a black dress the designer made for her mother, the late society swan C.Z. Guest. “Funerals are the best places to see people.”
Indeed. And with the demographic finger of death now pointing at the prominent on what seems like a daily basis, it’s almost impossible not to rave—and compare—as if it were fashion week. “Nora Ephron’s was planned by her, down to the last minute,” says Patricia Bosworth, the biographer and journalist who reported on the 2012 memorial at Alice Tully Hall.
Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Martin Short gave speeches, guests were served Ephron’s beloved pink champagne, and some of her favorite recipes were tucked into the program. “They all have music now and a film,” Bosworth says. “The one I went to for Sidney Lumet had films up the wazoo.”
How did this happen? The memorials of Estée Lauder and Robert Tisch in 2004 and 2005 may have set the standard. Hers included 2,400 guests and the New York Pops; his featured a marching band at Avery Fisher Hall. Neither, however, took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur, as Patricia Buckley’s did.
Christopher Buckley, the author and only child of Patricia and William F. Buckley Jr., is a modest man. When his mother passed away in 2007, she left no stipulations for her funeral beyond cremation. But with so many wanting to pay tribute, there wasn’t space in the couple’s Upper East Side maisonette, and because she had been a supporter of the Costume Institute, the Met offered Dendur.
Despite the free space, the bill for the event, which included catering by Glorious Foods, was about equal to the price of a small foreign car. “My mother would have asked me if I’d taken leave of my senses,” Buckley says. “But it was the coolest space on the planet for a memorial.”
When Evelyn Waugh satirized the funeral business in The Loved One decades ago, he wrote of corpses “more chic in death than ever before.” He had no idea. In recent years, proceedings have become so elaborate that what used to be handled entirely by funeral homes and houses of worship now require producers.
David Monn, a leading New York designer, sometimes helps with arrangements at the request of friends, including the services for Henry Grunwald, former Time chief and ambassador to Austria, as well as Wall Street stalwart John Whitehead. That one included a boys choir.