Friday, January 27, 2012

The Funeral

I had a difficult time reading The Funeral by Richard Matheson. I feel a little like the only person at the table who didn’t get the joke. I love the concept, but I think a lot of the funny was lost in the intentional bad writing. Having read quite a bit of Matheson, I can say this isn’t his usual writing style and that might be why the few times I’ve come across the story in the past…I just skipped it after the first couple of pages. I just have a hard time connecting with stories that make me feel like I am being beat over the head with a thesaurus. 

At its core, a story about a funeral director with an unusual client really does intrigue me. After my father got out of the military, he decided since he’d spent so many years putting men in the ground, he may as well do his part to kick some dirt over them too, and so he became a funeral director. Our dinner conversations were filled with stories of embalming mishaps, strange tales of how people died, and high jinks of the grieving families.  I know from my own visits to the funeral home just how crazy the place can get. 

However, the profession is taken very seriously for those who choose it. It’s not the sort of job you take on for the money. If it was, most people would change careers fairly quickly (and many of the incoming interns did) because you are surrounded by grief and misery and people forced to make decisions about their loved ones that they hoped to never have to make. It’s seriously depressing, and simply not worth it if cash is all you are interested in. That being said, Silkline’s glee at having a customer willing to pay for the best of everything really bothered me. At most funeral homes that I visited over the years of my father’s employ, the funeral directors refused to be seen as salesmen despite the commissions they would receive on caskets and urns and services. On more than one occasion, I watched my father and others talk families down from spending more money than necessary. They would tell the family that their departed loved one would not want them paying for years and locked in debt over their death, especially not over something like a casket or titanium vault that would only end up in the ground. They nudged people toward cheaper caskets, cheaper vaults, and my father’s favorite, direct cremation with a rented casket for the viewing service. Most of the time, the limos to and from the cemetery were free. 

So yes, I found the funeral director petting his pile of gold offensive. In general, people have a negative view of these men and women doing this service. This is partly because having to interact with them means someone they care about has died, and partly because a lot of the time when funeral directors are used in fiction and movies, they are creepy guys who steal your loved one’s jewelry before putting them in the ground and do strange things to their body when no one is looking. It’s a really horrible stereotype. 

But all the characters in the story were stereotypes to an extent. I think, like the bad writing, it was done on purpose, and did speed the story along in terms of characterization. That leaves me to wonder, if you are using bad writing techniques and clichés on purpose, does that make it okay? I think it really depends on your reader. Some people can truly appreciate the parody and find genius in the word play and the author’s ability to over describe, such as “his cardiac muscle flexed vigorously.” I, however, am the type of reader who sees so much unintentional bad writing that I just have a difficult time looking past it, and it hinders my enjoyment of the story.


Paul Naughton said...

I agree the rendition of the funeral director was playing to a false stereotype, but then I'm not sure if it would work that well if the character had been more like an actual funeral director.

At the same time, I don't feel that there was that much of a problem with the writing... I think part of it is that it seems to be written at a much different point in Matheson's career. Styles change over time and maybe he wrote it as an experiment. We just can't know for sure.

Aaron Bennett said...

I agree about the need for a thesaurus, and I have a very high vocabulary. At many times it did just seem like poor writing.

I also would have liked the characterization of the funeral director to be handled more deftly. That said, I don't think his greed is out of line. I think that was the point, that he was the "evil" one of the story. Yes, most funeral directors aren't greedy, but this character is. I think it's supposed to show that the monsters have more humanity than this shell of a human.