Joe Sixpack: From beer to eternity: a R.I.P.-roaring tradition

Bill Bramanti poses with a coffin he had specially made designed to look like a can of his favorite beer. (SouthtownStar via AP)
Bill Bramanti poses with a coffin he had specially made designed to look like a can of his favorite beer. (SouthtownStar via AP)
Posted: October 06, 2011

"PLEASE DO not send flowers," said the Daily News death notice, "the deceased has allergies. In lieu thereof, buy yourself a beer and enjoy!"

And with that, Ward J. Childs, of Society Hill, former city archivist, devoted husband of 50 years and father of two, departed our company and joined so many others whose final wish was only that we raise a beer in their memory.

A few days after her 75-year-old husband's passing last month, Childs' widow, Elizabeth, was still chuckling. "He had what I would call a very wacky sense of humor, very irreverent."

Beer, she said, "was his preferred drink. I wouldn't call him a devotee, but he did enjoy it. . . . . He didn't like a lot of pomp and circumstance. He just wanted people to enjoy themselves."

Sounds like somebody you could share a beer with.

Perhaps that's where the tradition of toasting the departed began: one last chance to hoist a pint with a friend.

It's a tradition that surely dates to the earliest civilizations, as archaeologists uncover evidence of lavish funeral feasts held inside the very tombs of the freshly deceased. By the 14th century, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales irreverently rhymed the mourners' priorities: "Now let us sit and drink and make us merry. And afterward we will his body bury."

Today, old war buddies commonly raise a glass to the missing, saving a final bottle for the last man standing. And who among us hasn't tossed a few back at an Irish wake?

Sometimes, though, beer drinkers take things a step further.

Before Fred Clark, of Virginia, died in 2006, he wrote his own obituary, instructing that "in lieu of flowers . . . make a sizable purchase at your local ABC store or Virginia winery (please, nothing French) and get rip-roaring drunk at home with someone you love or hope to make love to."

It's a sentiment that was so widely appreciated, his online guest book at Legacy.com has attracted 1,500 personal tributes and still counting, five years later.

Walter "Shorty" Jones kept the suds for himself when, in 1933, he became the last man legally hanged in the state of Colorado. He ordered two bottles of beer and gulped them down just before he swung from the gallows. Under the circumstances, you really couldn't blame him for not sharing.

But how about a cold one when you're already six feet under?

In the West Africa nation of Ghana, where the deceased are frequently laid out in personalized coffins, you can buy a casket that looks like a "perfectly reproduced" bottle of your favorite beer for $800. Talk about a stiff drink!

In Illinois, there's a guy who can't wait for his interment. He's already had a man-sized Pabst Blue Ribbon can built as his casket; until he's ready to be laid out, he fills it with ice and uses it as a beer cooler.

The legendary Claes, of Belgium's Hoegaarden brewery, went for a simpler send-off in the 16th century. An orphan as a child, he was raised at the brewery and grew to become, according to story, "the finest wheat brewer in the land." He lived till 100, then in his final request asked to be buried in a beer barrel.

Seventh-century missionary Columbanus took the whole idea of "last call" one step further. "It is my design," he declared, "to die in the brew-house; let ale be placed to my mouth when I am expiring, that when the choirs of angels come, they may say, 'Be God propitious to this drinker.' "

That sounds like wishful thinking, if you ask me. As Ward J. Childs surely knew, "In heaven there is no beer, that's why we drink it here."


"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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