Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

There’s just no relief for the fictional dead. If it’s not deceased dragons being lifted from their watery graves, then it’s a modern prometheus sculpting new life out of old cadavers, or a melancholy Dane slipping into reminiscence while gripping the skull of a late court jester. Cremation ought to deliver one from such posthumous embarrassment, and yet the annals of pop culture are teeming with troubled cremains: Urns tipped over, ashes improperly spread and/or accidentally (but not always accidentally) ingested. It’s an easy way to get around taboos about having fun at the expense of the departed—though, on occasion, the cremated get the last laugh. In that spirit, here are 13 examples of disturbing-the-resting-in-peace from film and TV history.


1. Frasier, “Martin Does It His Way” (season three, episode three)

Screenshot: Frasier

This episode mostly has to do with Crane patriarch Martin (John Mahoney) and his unrealized desire to write for Frank Sinatra, leading to a delightful set piece in which the retired cop and his snooty psychiatrist sons sit around the piano, trading “ringy-dingy”s and “scoobie-doobie”s in their shirt sleeves. It’s a “no regrets” storyline grounded in the death of Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles’ (David Hyde-Pierce) despised Aunt Louise, who continues to torment her nephews from beyond the grave, by requesting the former deliver her eulogy and the latter scatter her remains. It’s a background concern that goes literal when the family takes a detour on the way to the funeral, the two plot threads colliding as Frasier and Martin discuss musical ambitions, and Niles—spied in the distance, through the windows of the car—struggles with the lid to the ashes. It’s one of Frasier’s regular spotlights for Hyde-Pierce’s gangly physical comedy stylings, and the rare scene with an on-screen urn where the damn thing doesn’t spill at the slightest touch. It requires one more team-up for the Crane boys, though this one ends not with a “high-dee, hey-dee,” but with a face full of Louise. [Erik Adams]

2. Night Court, “Baby Talk” (season four, episode 13)

There’s no shortage of familial disputes in “Baby Talk”: The A-story centers on Mac (Charles Robinson), who freaks out after learning that his wife Quon Le’s (Denice Kumagai) spendthrift ways have left them virtually penniless—oh, and she’s pregnant. His resultant bender at a cowboy bar dominates much of the episode, which was written by Cheers alum (and future Dave’s World scribe) Tom Reeder, but it’s the aftermath of one of Judge Harry Stone’s (Harry Anderson) cases that stands out more than 30 years later. Harry presides over a fight between the two widows of a deceased bigamist named Herb; it seems both women would like to have their wayward spouse’s ashes placed atop their mantel. But before he gets the chance to settle things for his litigants, Harry finds out Art (Mike Finneran) thought the urn was some kind of herbal tea container, and dumped the cremains into the office coffeemaker. It leads to this great line from Harry—“That wasn’t herb tea, that was Herb!”—but poor prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), who’s just imbibed the cremains, can hardly appreciate it. [Danette Chavez]

3. The Big Lebowski (1998)

A popular and long-held fan theory about Joel and Ethan Coen’s cult comedy classic The Big Lebowski maintains that doomed sidekick Donny (Steve Buscemi) is not actually a real person. He’s a spirit that haunts Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), possibly from the emotionally damaged, khaki short-clad veteran’s ’Nam days. And it’s true that Donny’s interactions with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) are minimal throughout his tragically short life—at least, the part of it that’s in the movie. But there’s one scene in The Big Lebowski that challenges—one might even say disproves—this theory. As Joel Coen himself asked in a 2016 interview with HuffPost, “So what’s in the urn?” You see, after a fatal heart attack in the parking lot of the bowling alley, Donny’s ashes are deposited in a Folgers Coffee can and taken up to a picturesque cliff overlooking the Pacific, where Walter delivers a short eulogy and dumps out the can so Donny can surf forever in the sky-blue waters. Being the bumbling doofus that he is, however, Walter doesn’t think to check which way the wind is blowing before scattering Donny’s ashes, and most of Donny ends up all over the Dude’s favorite yellow bowling shirt. And if Donny wasn’t real, then what’s that caught in the Dude’s beard, man? [Katie Rife]

4. Wonderfalls, “Barrel Bear” (season one, episode seven)

The over-too-soon Bryan Fuller series about Niagara Falls gift shop employee Jaye Tyler (Caroline Dhavernas)—who starts receiving orders from muses taking the form of various animal-shaped tchotchkes—brought in some heavy hitters for its seventh installment, as Rue McClanahan guest-stars as Millie Marcus, the first woman to go over the falls in a barrel. Only that turns out to be not quite accurate, as the real first barrel-riding woman (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher) shows up demanding the truth be revealed. After a delicious episode-long snipe-fest between the two greats, Millie has a change of heart and wants to make things right. Sadly, it’s just in time to die of a heart attack. When it comes time to send her ashes over the Falls, Jaye does the right thing and puts her in a symbolically appropriate little barrel—or most of her, anyway. Some of her got in the cash register. But hopefully it “wasn’t anything important,” Jaye reasons. “Just, like, an elbow, or something.” [Alex McLevy]

5. Due Date (2010)

As on Night Court, the consumption of cremains in Due Date is born of necessity. And, as in the Married... With Children entry later in this list, we can see their ingestion coming a mile away. Todd Phillips—who was no stranger to ill-fated cross-country treks, having previously directed Road Trip and The Hangover—directs the odd-couple pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis in this 2010 comedy. When Peter (Downey), a tightly wound architect, is forced to drive across several states with aspiring actor and current naif Ethan (Galifianakis), the two men end up having life-altering effects on each other: Peter learns to relax, and more importantly, trust, while Ethan grows up and gets closure after the death of his father. But before those heartwarming developments, Peter mostly just wants to kill Ethan for any number of reasons, not least of which is drinking Ethan’s father’s cremains while in the presence of his wife’s handsome ex Darryl (Jamie Foxx). Peter clearly feels insecure about Darryl and Sarah’s (Michelle Monaghan) ongoing friendship, and finding himself in the guy’s luxurious home with a doofus, drinking the ashes said doofus has been carting around this whole time, is a blow to his ego. But Peter’s also not such an asshole that he doesn’t feel for Ethan when he desperately tries to scrape what’s left of his father out of Darryl’s Mr. Coffee. The compassion points to next chapters in the men’s lives: For Peter, it’s fatherhood and the sacrifices it entails, while former daddy’s boy Ethan must navigate the world on his own for the first time. [Danette Chavez]

6. High Maintenance, “Breathwork” (season three, episode four)

Screenshot: High Maintenance

Roving New York City as dealer to an unendingly strange, entertaining cast of stoners, High Maintenance’s The Guy (Ben Sinclair) plays witness to a lot of calamity in the lives of his clients. In season-three episode “Breathwork,” he delivers to members of a film crew struggling through a day of reshoots after their lead actor was fired for sexual misconduct. Sneaking off with the goods, the trio (led by The Office’s Amy Ryan) cannot seem to find a place to convene their “safety meeting” in peace—interrupted first by a pesky PA, then mosquitos, then a lover’s quarrel-turned-murder. Meanwhile, The Guy’s slow-burn love interest, Lee (Britt Lower), de-stresses via yoga and acupuncture before facing the next step in her divorce: clearing out the apartment she shared with her ex, who happens to be the fired actor. When Lee and The Guy finally meet up in the afternoon, all the disarray seems to fade with the sun, as they stroll along the riverfront quietly flirting, soaking in a golden-hour melancholy. Lee is just venting about her ex when Guy spots a man down the pier trying to empty a bag of ashes into the water, only for them to come straight back at him in the wind. It is the final absurd interruption of the day, and the two can’t hold back their laughter. “Hey, we’re alive,” The Guy says, and squeezes Lee in tight. [Kelsey J. Waite]

7. Six Feet Under, “In The Game” (season two, episode one) 

Screenshot: Six Feet Under

Funeral-home family drama Six Feet Under kicked off its second season in a typically bleak manner with “In The Game,” as young starlet Becky Maxwell (Alexandra Holden) OD’s after a night of cocaine. When the star’s friend’s take her remains to Fisher & Sons, they decide to commemorate her in a way she probably would have appreciated: by snorting her ashes. Even pessimistic Fisher sibling Claire (Lauren Ambrose) is appalled, but as one friend explains, “This way, she’ll always be a part of us.” While horrifying, Becky’s friend’s actions actually had a real-life precedent by who else, Keith Richards, who snorted up his own father’s remains. He told NME, “I couldn’t resist grinding him up ’it a little bit of blow.” For the extreme cocaine enthusiast, apparently, there’s no better way to feel close to a person than by snorting them into your body, even though the rest of the world could point to about five million things wrong with that action. But Richards pragmatically stated, “It went down pretty well, and I’m still alive.” [Gwen Ihnat]

8. Married... With Children, “Hot Off The Grill” (season four, episode one)

Nothing ever went off without a hitch on Married... With Children, so when “Hot Off The Grill” begins with Al’s (Ed O’Neill) excited planning for a Labor Day barbecue—including talking up an extra-special recipe—and the arrival of the urn holding Marcy’s (Amanda Bearse) late Aunt Tuney, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots. The season-four opener finds Peggy (Katey Sagal) and the Bundy kids, Kelly (Christina Applegate) and Bud (David Faustino), grumbling about being stuck at home over the holiday instead of at the beach. But Al repeatedly makes them do his bidding, starting with cleaning the patio furniture and shopping for groceries. The secret ingredient to his Bundy burgers turns out to be the ashes from the previous year’s cookout, but while in her cleaning frenzy—and fending off Al’s advances—Peggy accidentally dumps them out. Peggy, Bud, and Kelly then run around collecting ashes from their neighbors’ grills, fireplaces, ashtrays, and the urn with Marcy’s aunt’s cremains. By the end, Peggy is trying to kill Kelly for their sort-of cannibalism; Steve, who never liked Aunt Tuney, relishes the taste; and Al and Marcy devour their burgers none the wiser. [Danette Chavez]

9. Meet The Parents (2000)

Greg Focker’s (Ben Stiller) stay with his girlfriend’s parents was already off to a rocky start: He managed to insult her father Jack’s (Robert De Niro) favorite song, and then Jack caught Greg looking at dirty magazines at the drugstore. But Greg’s first out-and-out (and far from the last) disaster of the trip involves the two things Jack loves most in the world: his dead mother and cat, Mr. Jinx. In yet another misguided attempt to impress his prospective in-laws, Greg has splurged on some champagne to serve with dinner, but the popped cork inadvertently causes the Jack’s mother’s urn to topple over, smashing it to bits. The toilet-trained Mr. Jinx takes advantage of the spill, using Grandma’s ashes as a litter while the horrified family looks on. It’s a disrespectful fate for anyone—let alone a beloved family matriarch—and the type of slapstick hijinks that spurred Meet The Parents on to not one but two sequels. [Gwen Ihnat]

10. The Umbrella Academy, “We Only See Each Other At Weddings And Funerals” (season one, episode one)

All of the estranged superhero siblings of The Umbrella Academy are a bit fucked up, but Number 4, Klaus (Robert Sheehan), stands out from the start. His superpower is Sixth Sense-esque: He can see (and talk) to dead people. Naturally, that would freak out a child, so when Klaus was a kid, his adoptive father, Reggie, stuck him in crypts as a form of immersion therapy. (It didn’t stick.) As an adult, Klaus discovers that inebriation counteracts his power, leading to a significant drug habit. Small wonder then, that almost immediately upon Reggie’s death in the pilot, Klaus starts ransacking his father’s opulent den, looking for expensive curios and bric-a-brac to hock for more drugs. In the process, he discovers Reggie’s urn, and tries to use his powers to communicate with his dead dad, who does not cooperate. “You always were a stubborn bastard,” Klaus yells at the urn, before admitting, “I don’t know about you, but I need a drink,” knocking the urn over and spilling the ashes in his haste. He doesn’t seem too broken up about it, giggling with a bit of delight at his father’s undignified resting place. [Gwen Ihnat]

11. Monty Python Live At Aspen (1998)

Prior to Monty Python’s appearance at the 1998 US Comedy Arts Festival, it’d been nearly 20 years since all six members of the pioneering British comedy troupe appeared onstage together. And there was a pretty good reason for that, aside from all the internal tensions and squabbling: Their go-to straight man, Graham Chapman, had passed on (ceased to be, expired, and gone to meet his maker, etc.) in 1989. But none of that prevented the festival from putting a full, six-man Python lineup in front of an audience and in conversation with Robert Klein—first by smuggling Eddie Izzard in among the ranks, then by escorting Chapman’s purported remains to a place of prominence on the dais. From that point forward, there’s a charge in the air, as surely the Pythons wouldn’t do anything so ordinary or reverent as to let that urn loom over Chapman’s grinning portrait for the remainder of the hour. When the tension breaks, it does so explosively, everyone’s commitment to the bit creating the illusion of spontaneity even as the absurd choreography of the whole thing belies it. And when they’re done tidying, John Cleese picks right back up with the story he was telling before Terry Gilliam’s errant leg-crossing, leaving the crowd waiting for another spot of silliness to disrupt the formality of the evening. [Erik Adams]

12. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “I See You” (season four, episode six)

On the road to self-acceptance, responsibility, and mental wellbeing, The CW’s musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend takes the occasional detour. In “I See You,” it takes three, sending a trio of mismatched duos on separate road trips of varying significance. Poor little rich boy Nathaniel (Scott Michael Foster) and sardonic, one-time feminine-hygiene spokesperson Heather (Vella Lovell) don’t set out to be trapped in a car with someone they don’t want to be trapped in a car with—they’re brought together by bad automobiles and good samaritanism. They’re a corrosive pair who’ve had little cause for previous interaction and even less reason to get along, but they’re eventually put on common ground by the mysterious envelope Nathaniel cradles during their shared ride. Given his guardedness about the subject, it’s easy to divine the nature of the envelope’s contents well before they’re coating Heather’s face. The real emotional impact comes in the story behind the ashes, and all of the feeling they provoke from Foster and Lovell. Like Heather’s beat-up vehicle, this particular twist is a tired, old device—but it manages to bring two wildly divergent characters together. [Erik Adams]

13. Ocean’s 11 (1960)

And sometimes disaster strikes when the body’s still warm. So it goes at the end of Hollywood’s first score go-round with slick hood Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) and his band of merry men, whose casino heist isn’t nearly as complicated as Steven Soderbergh’s twisty take on the same—it hinges entirely on knocking the power out at the Sahara, the Riviera, the Desert Inn, the Sands, and the Flamingo on New Year’s Eve. But there is no “Claire De Lune” finale for these former paratroopers—only irony. Instead of the Bellagio fountain, Ocean and the boys get a mortuary, where they stash the loot in the casket of their late electrician, Bergdorf (Richard Conte). Only one hitch: Bergdorf’s being cremated, news that’s received in a masterful pan across 10 buck-passing glances. Because in 1960, a motion picture wasn’t supposed to suggest that crime pays. Can you imagine? In a film starring the ever-law-abiding members of The Rat Pack? [Erik Adams]

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