The humorous phrase one will be late for one’s own funeral, and its variants, are addressed or applied to one guilty of chronic and irritating unpunctuality.
Two of the earliest occurrences that I have found are from stories by the British sporting artist, author and illustrator George Finch Mason (1850-1915):
1: From Flowers of the Hunt, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Saturday 12th February 1881:
Charley Wildoats, the subject of our sketch, is one of those happy-go-lucky, erratic young gentlemen one so often meets. He never seems to know his own mind two minutes together. Punctuality, it is needless to say, is a virtue utterly unknown to him; indeed, his uncle and guardian, whose heir he is, and with whom he is supposed to live when he is at home, goes the length of saying, “I really believe, I do really believe, that Charlie will be too late for his ‘own funeral, begad!’ One never knows where to find him.”
“Ten o’clock! and the hounds meet at eleven. Good gracious! who would have thought it?—that’s the worst of me, I always was so frightfully lazy. You remember, old fellow, how I used to hate seven o’clock school at Eton, don’t you? So did you, if it comes to that. My father even used to go the length of prophesying that I should finish up by being too late for my own funeral.”
The phrase occurs in Punctuality, an unsigned short story published in Harper’s Bazaar. A Repository of Fashion, Pleasure, and Instruction (New York: Harper & Brothers) of Saturday 5th March 1881:
The trouble began as soon as we were married—nay, even before. I had been engaged to Charley long enough to learn his weaknesses pretty well, and as our wedding day approached, I began to tremble.
“Charley,” I said, as we parted the night before, “don’t be late to-morrow, whatever you do.”
“Good heavens, Leila! what do you take me for?” said Charley. “If ever a man was ready for anything—”
“Which you never were since I knew you,” I said. “I believe you would manage to be late for your own funeral.”
“That would not depend quite so much upon my own volition,” said Charley, laughing. “Make your mind easy, little woman; I shall be in time.”
One James Murray used an extended form of the phrase in The Derks of Derkbawn, a short story published in The Weekly Freeman and Irish Agriculturist (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 12th March 1887:
It is scarcely necessary to say that I was late—I always am late—my sister Mollie has over and over again given it as her very decided opinion that I will put in a very late appearance at my own funeral, and when I have taken the trouble to point out to her, that such a course is a very prudent and desirable one, she declines to continue the argument, merely pointing out that I am a “provoking creature.”
OTHER USES OF THE PHRASE
The precise acceptation of the phrase is unclear in one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the Social and Political column, in the Hartford Daily Courant (Hartford, Connecticut) of Tuesday 24th September 1878—the phrase may refer to General Butler’s political fate:
Unless General Butler * hurries back from the west he may be too late to attend his own funeral.
(* Benjamin Franklin Butler (1818-1893) was a U.S. politician, and army officer during the American Civil War (1861-1865).)
According to The Daily Echo (Northampton, Northamptonshire, England) of Saturday 8th September 1928, one Percy Thomas Goodban used the phrase literally:
LATE AT HIS OWN FUNERAL.
“As I have always had the reputation of being late for my appointments my joy will still be to be late at my funeral. Make me ten minutes late.”
These are the concluding words of the will of Mr. Percy Thomas Goodban, of Ealing Common, draper, who died on July 1st.
He leaves estate of the gross value of £189,323, with net personalty £163,928.
Another literal use of the phrase occurs in an article about the send-off that was given to a century-old passenger train known as the Blairgowrie Express, published in the Courier and Advertiser (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Monday 10th January 1955:
The train—the 7.5 from Forfar—was late for its own funeral. But the reception was enough to rouse even a corpse.