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Joe Charnitski’s Funeral: The Birth Of an Existential Crisis

The description for this show reads “Joe Charnitski has given two eulogies in his life. Both were for men named Joe Charnitski.” As Joe recounted the story of his life and how it naturally intertwined with his father and grandfather, he hit many raw and painful truths about life and death. This performance has something to pierce every audience member, whether through gentle humor or grief in the face of failure and loss.

Joe Charnitski greets his audience in a Superman t-shirt accessorized with a bathrobe, explaining that he was invited, or should I say, told, to present the eulogy at his father’s funeral. Because he had delivered a eulogy before, at his grandfather’s funeral, his mother felt this was right. He then realized he wouldn’t be able to give a eulogy at the next Joe Charnitski’s funeral. This provokes an existential crisis, not only in Joe but in all of us. I could feel other members of the audience consider their potential eulogy at their own funerals. Who will give it, and what will be said?

Joe then tells us his life really started the moment he decided to leave home. His father never truly understood this decision, and didn’t believe Joe would follow through. But inspired by Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Joe applied to NYU to study “movies.” After numerous calls to the university, he was admitted, and announced the news to his father, who responded simply, “okay.” A response Joe did not expect. But it didn’t matter. As Joe said, when you love someone and they find something that “lights their fire, you support them.” And that is what his father did. Joe framed this concept of unconditional love in a natural way that simply made sense.

Joe explains how his view of his father was formed, contemplating how circumstance and perception can paint a vivid and possibly misguided view of people. He describes his grandfather and their relationship, and how that informed his view of his father. After his grandfather was moved to a nearby nursing home, his father visited him every day. Joe recalled one particular visit to his grandfather, towards the end of his life. He had a pleasant smile on his face and Joe wasn’t sure if he even knew he was there, or whether he could hear him. He distinctly remembered another man in the home reassuring him, “He does, and he can, and he is grateful.” Joe Charnitski chose to believe this. So did I. At his grandfather’s eulogy, he discussed the history of their name—their familial roots.

He continued to speak about his father, and how they were growing apart, even though they had the same beginning. He eventually speaks about his failures: how life didn’t go according to plan, because life is random and doesn’t make sense. It’s a feeling everyone understands because life is, in fact, random and chaotic. We were all there with Joe and his frustrations. He went on to leave New York, and temporarily moved back home to Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Not long afterwards, he and his family received terrible news.

All the anger and pain inside Joe Charnitski exploded. Nothing was going right. His one source of relief was Bruce Springsteen, the man who promised better days ahead.

After more disappointment and heartbreak, Joe returned to New York City but realized he wasn’t the same person anymore. He circles back and reflects on his life again, contemplating the eulogy that will one day be delivered at his own funeral. You can sense his yearning for his own father; as his dad made things seem brighter than they really were. He felt lost, in search of the light. Joe knows his roots—the streets of Philadelphia—but does not know where he is going. Then again, do any of us?

Joe Charnitski’s Funeral Written and Performed by Joe Charnitski Oct. 1 at 7:30pm Photo: courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City


MEHR GUNAWARDENA is a writer from Sri Lanka who pursued her education and ambition in the United States. During her time at Clark University, she began experimenting with form and structure to make her writing as accessible as possible to all readers, while keeping true to her voice. She enjoys writing poetry and other fictional pieces with political and societal nuances, and is therefore drawn towards art with similar intentions.


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