“Best Funeral Ever” episode shows a service for a man who loved… (Jen White, TLC )
One look at the setting — a barn dressed with livestock, bales of hay and picnic tables — and it's immediately obvious that this is no ordinary funeral.
The casket's shaped like an oversized grill used for smoking meat, and pallbearers are wearing crisp white aprons and chef's hats. Live pigs squeal and run amok, while a tabletop fountain spits out barbecue sauce instead of chocolate, perfect for dipping freshly cooked ribs.
This is the eternal send-off, after all, of Willie "Wolf" McCoy, the man whose soulful voice is immediately recognizable to millions of people. Anyone, in fact, who's ever heard the Chili's restaurant theme song has heard McCoy singing, "I want my baby back, baby back, baby back."
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The ceremony, staged by the massive Dallas-based Golden Gate Funeral Home, is intended to properly remember the local celebrity who had performed at Harlem's Cotton Club and toured with the Drifters. What it's not, insists the architect of the event and the cable network that intends to air it, is morbid or tasteless.
"We want you to know who the person was and how he lived, not just the fact that he passed away," said John Beckwith Jr., chief executive of Golden Gate and star of the TLC special "Best Funeral Ever." "This is a celebration."
TLC, home of controversial series such as "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," "Breaking Amish" and "Sister Wives," is testing out another potential lightning rod with "Best Funeral Ever," which after being postponed in recognition of the Connecticut school shootings is slated to air Sunday.
The one-hour program highlights three of Golden Gate's services, called home-going ceremonies, the families and loved ones of the deceased, and the employees who create the over-the-top events themed to hobbies, professions and personal passions.
There are conflicts — a couple of funeral planners repeatedly butt heads — obstacles and resolutions, much like any other reality show. But the subject matter couldn't be more different from other unscripted series on television.
Executives at TLC said they "fell in love with" the crew at Golden Gate and thought the business would make compelling TV. The funeral home, founded by Beckwith's father in the '80s and now expanded to three locations, is on track to handle some 2,500 services this year, making it one of the busiest funeral homes in the Southwest.
"We're documenting what they do, and what they do so well is throw amazing home-going ceremonies," said Mike Kane, TLC executive producer. "We love the fact that they're bringing closure to these families. We don't think there's anything morbid about it."
If the special performs well with audiences, the network brass will consider making it a regular series. The show is "on brand" because, like TLC series that peek into religious cults, enormous families and unusual pastimes, it examines little-known subcultures that thrive throughout the country, Kane said.
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Beckwith, who said there's no family request too outlandish to consider, believes the show can educate viewers about home-going ceremonies that are unique to African American funeral parlors.
That includes so-called professional mourners, employees of the funeral home who attend services and encourage public grieving with their own animated displays of emotion. (Beckwith, in a scene from the special, coaches a group of mourners on their technique, singling out for extra praise people who scream and flail.)
"Professional mourners have been around since biblical days," Beckwith said. "They help families through the grieving process."
George Bonanno, a psychology professor at Columbia University and an expert on death and bereavement, said many cultures outside the U.S. have more celebratory, interactive, even boisterous funeral services. There's less an emphasis on the person leaving this world and more on him or her going to a better place.
Western culture, being culturally less demonstrative in its death rituals, may not understand a show like "Best Funeral Ever." Televising the events, Bonanno said, is the wild card.
"Grieving is a very personal thing, and if some people find elaborate celebrations to be comforting, then it doesn't matter if anyone else thinks it's in poor taste," Bonanno said. "But once you put it on TV, then you're susceptible to others' opinions about it. And it's not a cultural fit here for most people."
Beckwith, who's said he wants to expand the business beyond his traditionally African American clientele, already has started to build his media presence. He has a regular radio show, "Ask the Undertaker," on a local gospel station and a weekly public-access TV program of the same name.
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