Undertakers in the Media, Mid-Twentieth Century

The Loved OneBy 1948, when Evelyn Waugh published The Loved One, a resoundingly vicious satire of Forest Lawn in Los Angeles, the stereotyped fictionalization of the undertaker had become too much of a cliche for many. Waugh had submitted the story to magazines in the US and England, and by the time the piece was picked up by London-based Horizon, it has been turned down by several choice US markets, including The New Yorker, whose editors gave as a reason for rejecting it not that they were shocked at the portrayal of Hollywood funeral customs, but that it was “stale stuff.”

About a decade later, Hollywood brought Waugh’s piece to the screen, but the 1957 comedy about Whispering Glades, a Hollywood funeral home, and Happier Hunting Grounds, a Hollywood pet cemetery, was too dark for most Americans, even with its cast including Jonathan Winters and Liberace.

Film, radio and TV from the 1940’s to the 1960’s brought the undertaker to life in ways that played with, but did not break the mold established by literature. Mortality rates made death and consequent visits to the funeral home less frequent, but the new forms of media brought Americans face to face with a figure they didn’t really want to meet in real life. According to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, undertaker characters in the media would rarely win audiences over in support of their morbid vocation, but one exception was a beloved and popular undertaker character who appeared originally in the radio show The Life of Riley.

Digby “Digger” O’Dell was “the friendly undertaker” who played with the stereotype in some positive ways for the funeral industry, but didn’t fundamentally alter it.

The Life of Riley was a pioneer radio and TV sitcom geared toward families in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

It followed the doings of factory worker Chester Riley and his sidekick, Gillis. In each episode, Riley was presented with a set of circumstances which he had to find his was out of, and he would do so in a hilarious way, egged on by his family — kids Junior and Babs and wife Peg — who also put up with his gaffes and generally save him from himself. In the middle of an episode’s zany predicament, Digger would often show up, full of advice, delivering some of the program’s classic lines, such as: “In my profession, we have a saying: Never give up, though things look black, ’till a case is closed, a man can bounce back”; and “Cheerio. I better be shoveling off.” It is Riley that affectionately calls Digby “Digger,”

And every aspect of the character, from his name to his purpose, is a parody of the then flourishing funeral industry.

But even though Digger is good for a few laughs, he really comes across as more of a comic villain.

In one 1949 episode, Riley finds out he has to have a tonsillectomy, and, stricken with fear and trembling, enters a hospital. The fear comes of the hospital having replaced the home in this period as a place for dying, and having taken on symbolic weight in societal reflections on death. Digger shows up to visit Riley, with a crooked smile and a manner that does not inspire confidence, and makes a display of comforting Riley just before he is about to “go under the knife.”

He presents Riley with gifts: a bouquet of lilies and a copy of the book The Good Earth, with the line “You haven’t lived until you’ve buried yourself in a good boo.” He then informs Riley: “When you’re ready to leave this place I’ll be ready for you.” The nurse has trouble getting Riley to lie down on the stretcher, but Digger is at hand, proclaiming: “If anyone can help him to lie down, I can.” Presumably, such lines would have caused the audience to laugh, and distract them from the grim reality of Digger’s vocation.

This character and many other fictionalizations of the undertaker betray serious public suspicion of the motives of the men for whom death is a business. Despite their best efforts, morticians have not attained the same degree of public prestige as physicians, and the media’s characterization of them hasn’t helped.

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