Literary Undertakers Part II

Look Homeward AngelThe features of the national image of the undertaker in the early twentieth century, thanks to characterizations in literature and elsewhere, were very specific, almost formulaic. Because of social changes that affected the actual space of death and dying, the many exposes by journalists of the cost of burial, and the diagnosis of the American denial of death at the time of the funeral, this public image of the undertaker continued to have resonance in the popular imagination, according to Gary Laderman in his book, Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America.

While it is a stereotype, the undertaker embodies complex systems of meaning — social, emotional, and religious — which Americans employed in their effort to make sense of death. The image of the funeral director, according to Laderman, appeared in a wide variety of media in the first half of the century, which confirmed the usefulness of the stereotype in provoking audience response, as well as the meaningfulness of depicting the funeral director’s mediation between the dead and the living.

In Look Homeward, Angel (1929) by Thomas Wolfe, there appears one of the most famous death scenes in American literature, followed by an encounter with the local mortician, Horse Hines. The book is the story of Eugene Gant, a young Southern teenager both lonely and alienated, who is on a journey of self-discovery.

Like the work of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Flannery O’Connor, the novel contains elements of both Southern and Gothic setting—”bells, darkness, wind, a decaying mansion, labyrinths, and abyss, and eerie music,” as Laderman quotes a critic—in addition to “a quest, imprisonment, a ghost, and themes of isolation and fear of annihilation.” In his young life, Gant is hyper-aware of death and it is omnipresent: there have been many experience of it in the boarding house where he lives, he is preoccupied with his own death and burial, and his father carves tombstones while dying of cancer. Gant thus feels separated from others, but he is also capable of meaningful self-knowledge and possible triumph over death, as Laderman paraphrases.

Eugene’s beloved brother, Ben, has died of pneumonia. The figure of the undertaker takes on significance both as an agent, according to convention, of comic relief, and an unexpected source for a deep self-realization. The action shifts from the death scene to the local beanery, where Eugene and his other brother, Luke, are eating breakfast and the counter with other customers, and encounter the undertaker, Hines. When Hines enters, he is immediately seen as an opportunist, trying make a buck.

A sailor whispers to Eugene that the undertaker has his eye on him: “You’re next! He’s got his fishy eye glued on you. He’s already getting you measure up for [a casket],” Laderman quotes. The people in the beanery ridicule the undertaker as he carries on a conversation with the two brothers. He promises them that they will not recognize the body of their brother when they see it, which provokes a response: “God! An improvement over nature. His mother will appreciate it,” from one of the patrons.

Then another patron asks: “Is this an undertaking shop you’re running, Horse… or a beauty parlor?”

The undertaker inspires sarcasm, as well as some resentment and anger, in the beanery, but when the brothers visit his workplace later that day, he unwittingly sets the stage for Eugene to experience a profound realization. This epiphany, while I will explore next week, may mirror something Wolfe, who had himself had much experience of death by his 20’s, when he wrote the novel, may have undergone.

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