In a letter of 19 October 1972 to William Maxwell, following the death of his stepmother, Sylvia Townsend Warner asked: ‘Did you quarrel at the funeral? I rather wish you had, for I’m sure that when you quarrel you do, you quarrel like a tarantula. Nothing can make a funeral satisfactory: the person one wants to meet at it is underground.’
What a resource funerals are to the writer! Leopold Bloom at Paddy Dignam’s in Joyce’s Ulysses, Hamlet at Ophelia’s, Beowulf, the ancient Greeks. Weddings are too, of course, but the central business there is proleptic rather than retrospective. Funerals, though: a collision or at least a gathering of memories, regrets, resentments, fragments of conversation, a blurring and slurring of times, places, still and moving images, words thought or spoken, intended or achieved, compliments and curses, intimacies, betrayals.
William Faulkner spends most of As I Lay Dying’s fifty-nine chapters on the hazardous business of actually getting Addie Bundren’s body to Jefferson, where she wanted to be buried. That forced hiatus has its effects, not least olfactory ones. William the Conqueror’s funeral was so delayed, Peter Vansittart reports, that ‘his over-corpulent body suddenly exploded’.
‘How convenient a good old traditional funeral is!’ Simone de Beauvoir reflects in the closing pages of The Prime of Life. ‘The dead man vanishes into the grave, and his death goes with him. You drop earth on him, you walk away, and that’s the end of it; if you like, you can return from time to time and shed tears over the spot where death is pinned down. You know where to find it.’ She was thinking of her young friend Bourla, a victim of the Nazis, and of two young women she knew who also vanished without trace into the camps, their faces ‘never erased from my memory: they symbolized millions of others besides.’
As for funeral-related stories – Guy Davenport told of the funeral of Charles Olson, a poet of famously large stature. Allen Ginsberg, then, intoning kaddish but apparently unsure of some of the words, ‘stepped in his confusion on the pedal that would lower the outsized coffin into the grave. A soft whirr, the coffin tilted, lurched, and stuck before Ginsberg could leap away from the pedal.’ It transpired that the coffin was wedged ‘neither in nor out of the grave.’ Splendidly, Davenport’s footnote reads: ‘This account, I’m told, is not wholly accurate. I had it from Stan Brakhage, who had it secondhand. I leave it as an example of the kind of folklore about himself that Olson inspired and encouraged.’ In fact, a letter from William Corbett, published in the minutes of the Charles Olson Society in June 1998, recalled Corbett’s own attendance at the funeral and Ginsberg’s rendition of kaddish, but continued: ‘The officiating minister who strode up to conduct the burial seemed spooked by the congregation of long hairs some of whom were bearded. He hurriedly waved his silver instruments over the coffin. In doing so, he stumbled and hit the pedal that was to lower the coffin. He quickly took his foot away, and the coffin lurched, tilted sideways and stuck.’
Arthur Ransome remembered the funeral of Peter Kropotkin, whom he had last seen some three years earlier. ‘Then, as now, my attention was caught by his nose, so finely cut, so proud, the very index of the old fighter’s character.’ And of the disciples, he wrote: ‘There were some who had imitated his hair, some who had grown beards like his, but not one had a nose worth looking at.’ Clearly, a man with an eye for a nose.
And after the funeral? The wake, the celebrations, the drinks, snacks, exchanges, jokes, stories, occasional tactful silences. Or:
mule praises, brays,
Windshake of sailshaped ears, muffle-toed tap
Tap happily of one peg in the thick
Grave’s foot, blinds down the lids, the teeth in black,
The spittled eyes, the salt ponds in the sleeves,
Morning smack of the spade that wakes up sleep
And after Harry Lime’s second funeral, in the closing sequence of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, there is that celebrated, sustained shot of Anna’s long walk past the waiting Holly Martins, favouring him with neither glance nor pause, all to the plangent soundtrack of Anton Karas’s zither.
(The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed, written by Graham Greene)
At the end of William Faulkner’s ‘A Justice’, a story (containing a story told by Sam Fathers) told by Quentin Compson looking back at his young self, the children are riding back from the farm with their grandfather. Caddy and Jason have been fishing down at the creek. ‘Caddy had one fish, about the size of a chip, and she was wet to the waist.’ So there is a strong connection with what Faulkner described as the initial image of Caddy with wet and muddy drawers climbing the peach tree to look in through the window at her grandmother’s funeral, the germ of The Sound and the Fury – which began as a story, centred on Caddy, with the working title of ‘Twilight’. ‘A Justice’ too employs ‘one of the most persistent images’ in the writer’s mind, as Joseph Blotner explains: Quentin recognising his lack of sufficient knowledge to penetrate fully the mystery of what he sees and hears, comparing it to twilight. ‘I was just twelve then, and I would have to wait until I had passed on and through and beyond the suspension of twilight. Then I knew that I would know. But then Sam Fathers would be dead.’
As for looking forward rather than back, try T. H. White, author of The Goshawk and The Once and Future King among many others, writing to his friend David Garnett on 19 December 1938 (the year in which The Sword in the Stone appeared), from The New Inn, Holbeach St Marks, Lincolnshire. ‘I don’t know the marsh a bit, and only have the tides in my head, but I go alone. Will you arrange the funeral when I am washed ashore? Stick some goose feathers up my arse and I will fly to my heavenly mansion. There, there. Enough.’
Goose feathers, yes. He did enjoy his outdoor pursuits.
 Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 242. See 44-45 for her account of T. F. Powys’s funeral.
 Peter Vansittart, In Memory of England: A Novelist’s View of History (London: John Murray, 1998), 44.
 Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, translated by Peter Green (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 605, 535.
 Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 80, 81.
 http://charlesolson.org/Files/Corbett.htm (accessed 18 October 2021)
 The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, edited with prologue and epilogue by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 299.
 ‘After the Funeral (In Memory of Ann Jones’: Dylan Thomas, The Poems, edited and introduced by Daniel Jones (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1971), 136.
 William Faulkner, ‘A Justice’, in Collected Stories of William Faulkner (New York: Random House, 1950), 343-360; Joseph Blotner, William Faulkner: A Biography, two volumes (London: Chatto & Windus, 1974), I, 566-569.
 David Garnett, editor, The White/ Garnett Letters (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), 37.
2 thoughts on “Funerary matters, mutters, meters”
Very interesting thoughts – thanks for sharing!
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Thank you. Sylvia Townsend Warner, the starting-point, is one of my favourite letter writers, unfailingly interesting.
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