In 1948, A Johnson City Local Funeral Director Took Direct Aim at “The Life of Riley”

In 1948, a popular CBS radio show was titled, “The Life of Riley,” starring William Bendix in the popular role of Chester A. Riley. The show's title depicts someone who has it made or lives “the life of Riley.” His oft-repeated familiar idiom on the show was, “What a revoltin' development this is.” Riley could easily be described as the “Archie Bunker” of the 1940s.

Undertaker Digby “Digger” O'Dell and the first Chester B. Riley, Jackie Gleason

While we would all agree that death is never funny, this show had an usual character in it by the name of Digby “Digger” O'Dell, known unaffectionately as “the friendly undertaker.” In real life, he was the character actor, John Brown. One of his familiar lines addressed to Riley was, “You're looking fine, Riley. Very natural.” When it came time for him to leave an establishment, he would say, “Cheerio, I'd better be… shoveling off.”

Forrest Morris, president of Morris Funeral Home (located at 305 N. Roan Street, opposite Central Baptist Church) and, prior to that, Sterchi Funeral Home on Spring Street), suggested to the widely-known radio personality, that his type of humor was completely in bad taste and the character should be permanently “laid to rest.”

In May 1948, Morris called attention to the insensitivity of the program with an editorial in the Johnson City Press-Chronicle that was sent to the popular radio program. In part, it said:

“Throughout my long tenure of service, “said Mr. Morris, “it has never been my desire to make light of death or its accompanying grief” and I confidently feel that if this well-known punster were to suffer poignant grief, he would without hesitation seek another means of livelihood.”

“Twixt you and me, “Dig,” death is never funny, nor, in the human circumstances of deep sorrow, can funeral service ever be considered festive or jovial.

“In all fairness, Mr. Digby, we put to you the case of a family suffering bereavement. Not an exceptional case of some overly sensitive family issue, but the typical family of average, decent Americans. They recently lost, let us say, their elderly mother. To keep the case entirely fair to you, let us think of this family, not in their first poignancy employing grief, but some weeks after the funeral.

“Picture this scenario: This family is still in the phase of adjustment and transition. They're slowly, very slowly beginning to find their way back into normal paths of life they'd known before the shock of their recent heartbreak. They are seated in their home on any given Saturday evening, trying as best they can to comfort one another, seeking any seemly diversion that may bring some sense of sorrow in their hearts.

“Someone turns on the radio, and all of a sudden without the slightest warning, comes Digger “Digby” O'Dell, the friendly undertaker” to the microphone. Before you know it, you have been exposed to a pointed pun, or play on words that conjures up a cold, hard, callous, grim allusion to man's physical mortality.

“In the circumstances of these people, and there are of several million like them at any given time in these United States, do you suppose your act would be a joke to them? In my opinion, Digger, it is something that far exceeds a joke.

“It is true that the funeral director earns his or her living from services connected with the burial of the dead, but no decent funeral director or embalmer, in my opinion, has ever been made happier to learn of any person's death.

“In a matter of speaking, funeral directors do have the patience of Job, but there's a limit to all things. In the tolerant opinion of many, your burlesque is no longer funny. It is time to take “Digby” and bury him six feet down.” Well said, Mr. Morris.

According to my research, the role of “Digger” was never eliminated from the radio show; instead, when the program was switched to television in 1949, it retained, not only the same character but also the same actor … John Brown.

In case you're even remotely interested, on May 16, 1957, Digger (John Brown) died of a heart attack at age 54 while en route to his doctor's office. It is unlikely that there was any blatant merriment present at his funeral service. We can only wonder.