Thursday, June 26, 2008

A miserable death

At first glance, this 1923 photo in Abe Thompson’s scrapbook (1984ua004) may appear to record the funeral of a V.I.P. being given a military salute. It is, in fact, a mock funeral for Sewanee University, whose football team was beaten by the University of Kentucky 7-0 in a 1923 match. The tombstone reads “Here lies Sewanee – Died October [?], 1923 – Chewed up by the Wildcats – Died a miserable death”.

Mock funerals were a common prank in American colleges from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. In addition to “burying” opposing teams, students sometimes held funerals for their least favorite textbook, author, or class of the year. These were surprisingly complete with coffins, processions, dirges – and in the case of Sewanee’s funeral – military salutes. The more elaborate events were planned in advance by classes or social organizations and usually publicized in the form of flyers handed out to attendees the day of or before the “funeral”.

The 1912 Kentuckian (U.K. yearbook) shows a funeral procession for Willis E. Smith, who is immortalized in illustration and verse as “a young fellow of excellent pith” who chooses to leave U.K. abruptly and finds himself the subject of speculation and frenzied searching by the University, who thinks that he has come to harm. Unfortunately, the context for this prank has been lost, so whoever “Willis E. Smith” was or represents has also been lost. While the tombstones for Sewanee and Willis E. Smith can no longer be seen on campus, the spirit in which the mock funerals were conducted lives on in student scrapbooks and yearbooks.

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