9 Funerals Gone Wrong

Funerals are typically solemn affairs—unless the bowels of the dearly departed happen to explode all over the crowd of mourners.

Is disaster about to strike?
Is disaster about to strike? / Jupiterimages/The Image Bank/Getty Images

If you’re at a funeral, you would think the worst has already happened: the loss of a loved one. But some funeral mishaps prove that it actually can get worse. From a foul-mouthed parrot to an exploding corpse to swapped (and dropped) bodies, the funerals on this list went terribly awry.

1. A Swearing Parrot

Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, (early 20th century). Artist: Gordon Ross
Andrew Jackson. / Print Collector/GettyImages

When former president Andrew Jackson died of natural causes at the age of 78 in 1845, thousands showed up at his Tennessee home to attend the funeral. Among the mourners was Poll, a parrot Jackson had originally purchased for his wife Rachel in 1827. Rachel died just a year later, and Jackson left for the White House shortly thereafter, leaving Poll in Nashville.

Perhaps still angry at being left behind, Poll really let the deceased president have it while folks were paying their respects at the funeral. According to one witness, “Before the sermon and while the crowd was gathering, a wicked parrot that was a household pet got excited and commenced swearing so loud and long as to disturb the people and had to be carried from the house.”

There’s no record of what happened to Poll after the funeral, but these days, he does serve as the narrator of the children’s tour at Jackson’s Hermitage estate—presumably without the colorful language.

2. A Knock Comes From the Coffin

There are a lot of things you expect from a funeral—but a knock from the coffin isn’t one of them. In 2022, funeral-goers in Peru were in the middle of a funeral procession when they heard tapping from inside of the coffin. When they opened it, the woman inside, Rosa Isabel Cespedes Callaca, was allegedly gasping for air. The cemetery caretaker called the police. He later said he witnessed Callaca opening her eyes and even sweating. She was taken to a nearby hospital and put on life support, but ultimately died soon after. Family members believe she was incorrectly pronounced dead after a car crash, and had actually been in a coma. 

3. A King’s Exploding Corpse

William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror. / Print Collector/GettyImages

William the Conqueror ruled England for more than two decades and was known—as the name suggests—for winning battles, particularly the Battle of Hastings, in which he defeated Harold II of England in a war for the throne. He squelched a number of citizen rebellions after the win by burning villages, destroying crops, slaughtering herd animals, and even killing villagers. During this “Harrying of the North,” as it’s called, conditions became so brutal that some historians believe villagers resorted to cannibalism to survive.

In 1087, William was campaigning in France when his horse reared up, thrusting his saddle into his gut so forcefully that it punctured his intestines. By this time in his life, William had enjoyed many years of literally eating like a king—and his girth didn’t do him any favors with this injury. When he died six weeks later, everyone attending him—including noblemen, knights, and all the lesser attendants—either fled the scene or looted the castle. They took everything that wasn’t nailed down, including royal furnishings, and left the king’s body nearly naked on the floor, according to an account written by a Benedictine monk named Orderic Vitalis.

With his inner circle gone, the business of getting the king his final resting place in France fell to a knight who used his own funds to get William embalmed and have the body shipped 70 miles to Caen via boat. 

The slow trip was not kind to the king’s corpse. Bacteria escaped his gut and leaked into the rest of his body, accelerating the decomposition process and essentially turning his body into a gas bomb. And then more delays happened, starting with a fire that postponed the funeral. Once the service finally started, a man interrupted and declared the land the king was to be buried on actually belonged to his family. Nothing continued until he was compensated.  

All of these delays allowed time for the gas inside William to continue building. And there was another problem: The masons who made the king’s stone sarcophagus had made it too small, so they had to force William’s body into it. And, well, his bowels burst. The gas exploded over the crowd and “an intolerable stench assailed the nostrils of the bystanders,” wrote Orderic Vitalis. The funeral quickly came to an abrupt close. 

The threat of lingering gas apparently didn’t bother curiosity seekers and graverobbers, who opened or ransacked William’s tomb three times. The first time, in 1522, was a relatively harmless look at the body. Forty years later, a Calvinist mob looted the tomb for valuables, then scattered the king’s remains when none were found. The bits that were located were reinterred under a new monument in 1642, but even these were all thrown in the River Orne during the French Revolution. Today, all that remains in his grave is a thigh bone.

4. A Fight Breaks Out—With the Corpse

In 2007, friends and family were attending a funeral for their loved one at Harvest Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida. It appeared to be a fairly run-of-the-mill funeral—until a man came into the church uninvited, approached the casket, and began punching and abusing the body inside.

While this is very upsetting under any circumstance, what’s even more disturbing is that it’s not clear if the attacker even knew the deceased. He was arrested shortly after the attack and was court-ordered to undergo a mental evaluation.

5. A Queen’s Wild Horses

Sailors pulling the gun carriage carrying the coffin of Queen Victoria, Windsor, Berkshire, 1901.
Sailors pulling the gun carriage carrying the coffin of Queen Victoria. / Print Collector/GettyImages

After Queen Elizabeth’s passing in 2022, we were reminded that a royal funeral is full of pomp, circumstance, and tradition. But sometimes even tradition goes awry. When Queen Victoria died at the age of 81 in 1901, she was given the full military funeral she requested. Among other things, that meant a three-mile-long royal procession that included the queen’s coffin, draped in white satin and mounted on a military gun carriage pulled by white horses. 

The horses, however, hadn’t been informed of how somber the occasion was. During the procession, they got spooked, broke free of the gun carriage, and bolted, abandoning the queen’s coffin midway through the route. When it became clear that the horses wouldn’t be returning, Louis Mountbatten, Prince Philip’s grandfather, suggested the Royal Navy use ropes to tow the gun carriage the rest of the way. They did, the funeral was saved, and a new tradition was born. When Queen Elizabeth II died, 142 sailors pulled her coffin in the procession, just like what had been done for Queen Victoria more than 120 years before. Naval personnel also pulled gun carriages for the funerals of Queen Victoria’s son, King Edward VII; her grandson, King George V; Elizabeth’s father, King George VI; and Winston Churchill, among others.

6. A Body Swap

Imagine showing up to a loved one’s funeral, approaching the casket to say your final goodbyes, gazing down to look at them one last time—and realizing that the person in the coffin is a complete stranger. That’s exactly what happened to two South Philadelphian families in 2009, when a funeral home sent the wrong bodies to the wrong services. “They kept trying to tell us that it was him and I knew it wasn’t him,” said the wife of Kenneth Roberts, one of the deceased men. The funeral directors eventually acknowledged the mistake and corrected the issue over an hour later, but when the right body finally arrived, it was face-down and partially hanging out of the casket. To add to the chaos, one funeral-goer suffered a seizure during the whole snafu, and another one had an asthma attack. The funeral was ultimately canceled and a private gathering was scheduled at a later date.

7. A Corpse Attacked by an Elephant

Elephant taking a dust bath in India.
Elephant taking a dust bath in India. / Martin Harvey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

In 2022, the family of an Indian woman found the old adage “an elephant never forgets” to be true in the worst way possible. Seventy-year-old Maya Murmu was collecting water in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, India, when she was attacked by an elephant said to have escaped from a nearby sanctuary. She initially survived the attack, but later died of her injuries in the hospital. When her family held her funeral, an elephant—believed to be the same one—charged up to the funeral pyre. After trampling on her body, the elephant picked it up and tossed it aside.

According to the Economic Times of India, the carnage didn’t stop there. The Times reported the elephant roared to incite other elephants to attack the village; they allegedly destroyed the woman’s house and killed her goats. Several other houses were also apparently damaged in the attack. Despite their gentle reputations, elephants are known to attack and wreak havoc in India—the country’s elephant population is 30,000-strong, and they’re running out of places to live. They also come into direct conflict with humans when feeding on crops like bananas, sugarcane, and rice.

8. A Body Drops In

In 1967, Mary Folan died of cancer at the young age of 56. Though she had moved to the U.S. during the 1920s, one of her last wishes was to be buried on her native island off the coast of Galway, Ireland. Rather than risk a water voyage, they decided to transport her coffin there by helicopter. But when the helicopter picked Mary up from the Shannon airport, the sling that transported her coffin wasn’t secured properly. They had only flown a few kilometers when one end of the sling opened and dumped Mary’s coffin into a nearby field. 

Her remains were transferred into a lighter coffin, and the helicopter ran a successful test with a box carrying a similar amount of weight. All went well with the test, but when they tried to transport Mary again, the sling failed again—and this time, the coffin fell into the sea. The coffin floated, but eventually, they lost sight of it. 

After days of looking, a priest was brought in to bless the sea where Mary’s coffin was last seen. Rumors later swirled that there was never a body in the coffin at all, and that the helicopter debacle was a failed attempt to smuggle arms or drugs into the country. None of this was ever substantiated, and Mary Folan’s family had to live with a burial at sea.

9. A Mid-Funeral Car Chase

view from the top of police cruiser in a high speed chase
Car chases and funerals don’t mix. / franckreporter/E+/Getty Images

In 2021, a man led police on a 45-minute car chase in the San Diego area. He eventually pulled over in a residential area in Chula Vista and fled on foot—directly into the Most Precious Blood Catholic Church, where a funeral was already in progress. As police followed the suspect up the aisle and to the altar, dozens of funeral attendees escaped out the front door. The man, wanted for a felony arrest warrant, was handcuffed and taken into custody at the altar without incident, and the funeral resumed as planned.

This story was adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. Subscribe for new videos every week.