Reflections on Horror Literature: “The Funeral”

Last week, I discussed Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—a dark, disturbing and trendsetting novel that cemented several horror tropes in literature and film (particularly in zombie-related pieces) we still see today. Comparatively, his short story “The Funeral” sets a completely different tone and serves a different purpose.

Where I Am Legend makes the reader question the nature of the monstrous, positioning it ultimately within the framework of humanity-as-scourge, “The Funeral” illustrates the more mundane query of “Would you sell out your principles for a fat paycheck?” Of course for our main character, Morton Silkline, the answer is “yes.”

Silkline works for a funeral parlor—either as a planner or director; the text is slightly unclear, but he is solidly in the sales end of things. When a vampire hires him to plan his own funeral, resulting in an event best described as “chaotic,” replete with guests of the supernatural variety, Silkline is horrified and disturbed. And yet, upon receipt of Ludwig the vampire’s vast piles of gold, Silkline “found strength” enough to rationalize to himself that “the affair had not really been as bad” as he’d originally perceived it. This avarice entices Silkline to take on a second client by story’s end, this one a Cthulhu-esque tentacle monster.

The funeral itself is ridiculous to the hilt, at turns eccentric and neo-Victorian, à la The Addams Family, and at other moments more monstrous, making Silkline’s conniption fit during the event seem more logical. These bits reminded me of the failed Bryan Fuller reimagining of The Munsters from 2012, Mockingbird Lane. (The mixed whimsy, decadence, and horrific nature of the characters in the latter seem much more inspired by this story than the original Munsters, in fact.) And yet the overall tone of the story is indeed comedic and difficult to truly take seriously, in stark contrast to I Am Legend, therefore it’s difficult to unpack any real deeper meaning here other than satire or perhaps an acknowledgement that family gatherings—whether your family is perfectly ordinary or whether it is a collective of vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and witches—it is not immune to the same petty arguments and tensions as any other family. Funerals, like weddings, tend to bring out the worst in people.

If there’s any seriousness to be found here, other than Silkline’s greed, it could be in the absurdity of tradition. Ludwig, still perfectly ambulatory and alive in his undeath, seems to feel it necessary to hold a funeral for himself, even as he rests—still speaking and addressing the guests—during the event, admonishing them on occasion for their bickering. The need to actually hold such an event for someone still perfectly capable of attending it is indeed ridiculous, but perhaps Matheson is attempting to address the artifice of the event even for mere mortals. To be put on display for people to publicly mourn, hors d’oeuvre in hand, is slightly odd. Silkline’s every mannered bit of pabulum-as-sales-pitch—“When loved ones lie upon that lonely couch of everlasting sleep…let Clooney draw the coverlet”—is offensive and exploitative.

Essentially, then, “The Funeral” is a story about tradition and greed going hand in hand to exaggerate and make monstrous the fragile human condition.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Reflections on Horror Literature: “The Funeral”

  1. I like what you said about Asper and tradition – I hadn’t thought about it, but it is interesting that he’s the one who decides to have the event. it’s meant to be for the benefit of his family and friends, but it’s clearly all for him. Kind of turns the whole thing on its ear.

  2. The actual funeral scene almost made me think of a rehearsal of some sort. Asper lays in his coffin pretending to be dead, but has to keep sitting up and tell the guests to behave themselves. It drives home that this whole scene really is for him.

  3. Margaret Ayala

    I really like how you mention that funerals can bring out the worst in people. What I noticed in my reading–and I think from reading the posts that others picked up on this as well–is that even though the monsters are stereotypical monsters, there’s something very human about them. I didn’t think about funerals in the light of tradition and how they bring out the worst in people, and I like your interpretation.

  4. I’m not sure this story had a deeper meaning, other than maybe poking fun at pop culture and some of the obvious human traits in the monsters (and Silkline), and I’m okay with that. Sometimes you just need a little bit of entertainment or a good laugh. For me, this story provided both and I’m wiling to call that enough.

  5. I like the dysfunctional family gathering point you made. This story really made us a part of that gathering, after all many of us have nostalgic and familiar feeling for the classic monster tropes.

  6. Michelle R. Lane

    …the absurdity of tradition…

    I’m not sure how I feel about that idea that tradition is absurd. Ritual practices connect us to the past. Honoring the dead is a wonderful tradition, but I think what Matheson is having fun with is the industry that preys upon the bereaved. Here we have a roomful of monsters, at a funeral, in a funeral parlor, and the scariest thing of all is how much the casket and rental of the Eternal Rest Room will cost Ludwig. I’m all for tradition, I just wish it wasn’t so expensive.

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