Always Go To Other People’s Funerals — Otherwise, They Won’t Come To Yours

Yogi Berra? J. F. Shaw Kennedy? Charles Lee? Punch Magazine? Clarence Day? Anonymous?

weath07Dear Quote Investigator: A comical remark about funeral attendance has been attributed to the baseball great Yogi Berra:

Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.

A simple interpretation seems to require ghosts to attend a future funeral. Would you please trace this joke? Is it a genuine Yogiism?

Quote Investigator: In 1987 William Safire who was the language columnist of “The New York Times” asked Yogi Berra about this statement, and Berra denied that he ever made it. 1 Indeed, the jest was circulating before Berra was born.

The earliest evidence known to QI was printed in a novel titled “The Youth of the Period” by J. F. Shaw Kennedy in 1876. The publisher was based in London. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Old John Nobbs was one of those present. Going to funerals was quite a mania of his, and he attended every funeral he could for twelve miles round Ledbury.

“Confound it!” John would say, “if I don’t attend other people’s funerals they won’t come to mine.”

Thanks to magnificent researcher Stephen Goranson who located the above citation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1895 a short story published in a London journal called “The Leisure Hour” included the joke. The tale used nonstandard spelling to represent dialect, e.g., berrin’, burial; ess, yes; cauld, cold; het, hot; motty, motto; knaw, know; and manen, meaning. In the following passage a character named Mrs. Polsue began by stating that she had not missed a burial in twenty years. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“Ess, o’ course. I haven’ missed a berrin’ in this town for twenty year—summer or winter, cauld or het, dry or wet—and there edn’ many can say the same. ‘Do unto others as you would that they sh’d do to you,’—that’s my motty; and I turn et this way, ‘Go to other people’s berrin’s that they may come to yours.'”

“Eh—’twould be a wisht berrin’ that!” chuckled Mrs. Tonkin.

“You d’ knaw my manen, Ann,” said Mrs. Polsue placidly.

The text above appeared in a story titled “Mrs. Tonkin at Home” by Charles Lee, and in April 1895 the work was reprinted in the journal “Littell’s Living Age” based in Boston, Masschusetts. 4 Hence, the jest was disseminated in England and the United States.

In 1898 “The Cornish Magazine” printed a set of reminiscences from inhabitants of Cornwall, England. The speaker delivered the line about burials without intentional humor. The term “pixy” referred to small sprite-like creatures of popular folklore in Cornwall: 5

‘Iss, I always go to berrin’s,’ said a woman to me, ‘tes like this, see, go to other folks’ berrin’s that they may come to yours.’ And when I laughed—’like a pixy,’ as she would have said—at that: ‘Aw, my son,’ she said, ‘you do taake my meanin’; but theer, I do dearly love a berrin’.’

In 1907 a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed an instance as a filler item. The name “Flannigan” and the nonstandard spelling suggested that the speaker was Irish. The phrase “Of course I am” was rendered as “Ave coorse Oi am”: 6

Biddy—So you’re goin to Flannigan’s funeral?
Mike—Ave coorse Oi am. If you don’t go to folk’s funerals how can you expect them to come to yours?—Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday.

The valuable citation immediately above and others were identified by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

In 1911 the influential London humor magazine “Punch” printed a one panel cartoon with a caption that included an instance of the joke: 7

punch400
Visitor. “I’VE JUST COME FROM THE DOCTOR’S FUNERAL, BUT I DIDN’T SEE ANY OF YOU THERE.”
Hostess. “NO—MY HUSBAND DIDN’T CARE TO GO, AS FUNERALS ALWAYS UPSET HIM.”
Visitor. “OH, WELL, IF YOU NEVER GO TO OTHER PEOPLE’S FUNERALS I DON’T SEE HOW YOU CAN EXPECT THEM TO COME TO YOURS.”

The “Punch” item was reprinted in multiple periodicals. For example, “The Boston Sunday Globe” in Massachusetts published a version with a simpler illustration, and the “Oakland Tribune” in California published an instance with no illustration. 8 9

In 1935 “The New Yorker” magazine published a vignette titled “Father Plans to Get Out” by Clarence Day which included an instance of the gag. This story was collected with others to create the popular book “Life with Father”: 10

He told General Anderson, he didn’t see why they kept going to them. General Anderson frowned and said they had to. “If you don’t go to other men’s funerals,” he told Father stiffly, “they won’t go to yours.” But Father said he didn’t intend to die at all if he could help it, so they couldn’t go to his anyway.

In 1946 “LIFE” magazine printed an article about a politician nicknamed Hinky Dink, and an instance was included: 11

He never went out, even to funerals. This, said his friends, explained Hinky Dink’s own unsuccessful funeral. “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals,” the boys observed, “they won’t go to yours.”

In 1965 “The Washington Post” printed a letter that referred to Clarence Day’s book but employed a different phrasing for the remark: 12

I also think of Clarence Day (in “Life With Father”) who said: “You have to go to other people’s funerals if you expect them to go to yours.” Sincerely, C. L.

In 1973 a columnist in a Shawneetown, Illinois newspaper linked the expression to a politician named Johnny Powers: 13

He visited the sick, congratulated the newly married, welcomed each new baby and comforted the bereaved. The latter was especially important and some aldermen never missed a funeral—for as 19th ward boss Johnny Powers observed, “if you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”

In 1987 William Safire of “The New York Times” telephoned Yogi Berra and asked him about the quotation. Berra denied that the words were his: 14

What about the recent “It’s déjà vu all over again,” so often attributed to Mr. Berra? “Nope, not true, I never said that.” Or the advice, “Always go to other people’s funerals — otherwise, they won’t come to yours”? That too is disclaimed; not an authentic bonaprop by Berra.

In 1989 Yogi Berra together with Tom Horton published an autobiography titled “Yogi: It Ain’t Over”. The funeral remark was disclaimed by Berra again: 15

I didn’t say, “It’s déjà vu all over again,” and I didn’t say, “always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise, they won’t go to yours.” But I did get a phone call from William Safire, the New York Times columnist, asking if I had. He didn’t seem disappointed when I told him no. That made me like him even though we had never met.

In conclusion, the earliest citation for the jest known to QI appeared in an 1876 novel by J. F. Shaw Kennedy. However, this remark has been difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. For example, the 1895 version employed the term “berrin'” instead of “funeral”. Hence, the ascription to Kennedy must be considered tentative.

In addition, an 1898 citation suggested that the remark was not a fictional construct, but was spoken by a Cornishwoman without humorous intent. The popular periodical “Punch” printed a cartoon with the jest in 1911. The writer Clarence Day included the joke in a story that was published in “The New Yorker” in 1935, but it was already in circulation. The linkage to Yogi Berra was spurious.

Image Notes: Photograph of wreath from Noir at Pixabay. Photograph of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia from TheVoicesOfBrian at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

Update History: On September 28, 2015 the 1876 citation was added, and the conclusion was rewritten.

(Great thanks to the brilliant baseball player Yogi Berra who passed away on September 22, 2015. Berra’s athletic legacy was remarkable. In addition, a fascinating and fun linguistic legacy has accumulated in his name. It is a complex combination of the genuine and apocryphal. Special thanks to Barry Popik who pushed the date of this jest back to 1907 which inspired QI to reactivate this research topic and push the date back to 1895. Further thanks to Stephen Goranson who pushed the date back to 1876. In Memoriam: For my brother Stephen who enjoyed real and fake Yogi quotes.)

Notes:

  1. 1987 February 15, New York Times, Mr. Bonaprop by William Safire, Start Page SM8, Quote Page SM10, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1876, The Youth of the Period by J. F. Shaw Kennedy (James Frederick Shaw Kennedy), Chapter 19: True Love, Quote Page 232, Published by Samuel Tinsley, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1895, The Leisure Hour, Mrs. Tonkin at Home by Charles Lee, Start Page 303, Quote Page 310, Column 1 and 2, Published at 56 Paternoster Row, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1895 April 27, Littell’s Living Age (The Living Age), Volume 205, Mrs. Tonkin at Home by Charles Lee (Reprinted from Leisure Hour), Start Page 204, Quote Page 213, Column 2, Published by Littell & Co., Boston, Masschusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1898 July to December, The Cornish Magazine, Volume 1, Edited by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch Recollections of a Parish Worker by M., Start Page 467, Quote Page 468, Published by Truro: Joseph Pollard, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1907 October 03, New Orleans Item,(Filler item) Av Coorse, Quote Page 13, Column 3, (GNA Page 24), New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1911 January 25, Punch, Or the London Charivari, (Caption of One Panel Cartoon), Quote Page 69, Punch Publications Ltd., London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  8. 1911 April 9, Boston Daily Globe, Page Title: Laugh and the World Laughs With You, (Caption of One Panel Cartoon), Quote Page SM2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  9. 1911 February 16, Oakland Tribune, A Bit of Humor, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1935 June 29, The New Yorker, Father Plans to Get Out by Clarence Day, Start Page 17, Quote Page 17, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  11. 1946 October 28, LIFE, Volume 21, Number 18, The Passing of Hinky Dink, Start Page 53, Quote Page 55, Column 2, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1965 May 13, The Washington Post, Mary Haworth’s Mail: This Friend Should Be Dumped (Letter from C. L. to Mary Haworth), Quote Page K8, Column 3 and 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  13. 1975 January 23, The Gallatin Democrat, Illinois with John H. Keiser Historian Sangamon State University: Bathhouse and Hinky Dink: Political Bosses, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Shawneetown, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1987 February 15, New York Times, Mr. Bonaprop by William Safire, Start Page SM8, Quote Page SM10, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  15. 1989 Copyright, Yogi: It Ain’t Over by Yogi Berra with Tom Horton, Quote Page 15 and 16, McGraw-Hill, New York. (Verified on paper)