It is a strange coincidence that I read Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One shortly after my first experience with leading funerals. The Loved One is a book about, well, funerals, or more precisely, the funeral industry. To an extent, it is a book about religion, or the lack thereof. It is a tragedy, which like all good tragedies looks like it’s going to end well, until the fateful moment of anagnōrisis when everything suddenly comes crashing down with calculated precision.
A friend of mine once said that Waugh was a misanthropist, and after reading The Loved One, I am inclined to agree. Not that he isn’t funny. His comments on the differences between Americans and Europeans are very flattering to Europeans. And his satirical approach to individualistic secular rituals is very gratifying to Catholics. So, as a European Catholic, I enjoyed the book immensely…until the end, which still makes me angry.
At the beginning of the book we meet Francis and his nephew Dennis. Dennis, a poet out of work, has just accepted a new job. Although his new line of work raises some eyebrows among his fellow British residents in California, he seems qualified enough. As he says, ‘The man they had before caused offence by his gusto. They find me reverent. It is my combination of melancholy with the English accent.’
As it turns out, his employer is the Happier Hunting Ground, a company that arranges funerals for pets. Somewhat like this:
‘I have a brochure here setting out our service. Were you thinking of interment or incineration?’
‘Buried or burned?’
‘Burned, I guess.’ …
‘And the religious rites? We have a pastor who is always pleased to assist.’ …
‘Mr Barlow, we’re neither of us what you might call very church-going people, but I think on an occasion like this Mrs Heinkel would want all the comfort you can offer.’
‘Our Grade A service includes several unique features. At the moment of committal, a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr Heinkel, ‘I reckon Mrs Heinkel would appreciate the dove.’
‘And every anniversary a card of remembrance is mailed without further charge. It reads: “Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail.”’
His uncle Francis, however, is not doing so well. Chief script-writer in Megalopolitan Pictures (hē polis hē megalē, ‘the great city’, is a name used multiple times in the Apocalypse that rarely bodes well), at one time he goes to his office and finds it occupied. Apparently he has been fired, and, driven by despair, he commits suicide.
That is the set-up that brings Dennis to the awe-inspiring burial grounds of Whispering Glades, of which his own Happier Hunting Ground is only an imitation (or, as the stern people at Whispering Glades would say, a parody).
Whispering Glades has been conceived by an artist known as the Dreamer. A huge marble inscription at the entrance indicates that its purpose is to bring maximum happiness to the Waiting Ones and to provide a happy resting place for the Loved Ones, a euphemism for those who have passed away. Next to the marble block is a wooden signboard with the text, ‘Prices on inquiry at Administrative Building.’
As Dennis enters through a florist’s shop, he hears a woman saying on the telephone, ‘I’m really sorry but it’s just one of the things that Whispering Glades does not do. The Dreamer does not approve of wreaths or crosses. We just arrange the flowers in their own natural beauty.’
It is clear that Whispering Glades offers all the comforts of religion but experiences sharp discomfort with the idea of revelation.
It is at Whispering Glades that Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos (‘Loved One Born to Death’, of course). She is one of the cosmeticians whose job it is to make the dead look presentable. The author says some rude things about American women in general before describing Aimée as above average, indeed ‘decadent’:
Her hair was dark and straight, her brows wide, her skin transparent and untarnished by sun. Her lips were artificially tinctured, no doubt, but not coated like her sisters’ and clogged in all their delicate pores with crimson grease; they seemed to promise instead an unmeasured range of sensual converse. Her full face was oval, her profile pure and classical and light. Her eyes greenish and remote, with a rich glint of lunacy.
As the book progresses, an absurd but endearing love triangle unfolds between
1) Dennis, the cynical European imitator of beautiful things;
2) Aimée, the idealistic young woman, who writes frequent letters to the local newspaper’s Guru Brahmin at this critical time of her life; and
3) her great hero and example, true artist cosmetician of Whispering Glades, beautifier of the dead, austere and serene: Mr Joyboy.
The third party has not been mentioned yet, but he definitely has an eye on Aimée, and the feeling is mutual:
‘When I am working for you there’s something inside me says “He’s on his way to Miss Thanatogenos” and my fingers just seem to take control. Haven’t you noticed it?’
‘Well, Mr Joyboy, I did remark it only last week. “All the Loved Ones that come from Mr Joyboy lately,” I said, “have the most beautiful smiles.”’
‘All for you, Miss Thanatogenos.’
In one sense, that makes Aimée very lucky, as Mr Joyboy is a legend among the cosmetic staff:
As he passed among them, like an art-master among his students, with a word of correction here or commendation there, sometimes laying his gentle hand on a living shoulder or a dead haunch, he was a figure of romance, a cult shared by all in common, not a prize to be appropriated by any one of them.
However, against her own will, Aimée falls in love with Dennis, who says all sorts of irreverent things that scandalize and infuriate her, even as they secretly attract her. And he also pretends to write poems for her – poems which he steals from famous historical European poets, with varying degrees of success. But his ploys are insufficient. So when he meets the non-sectarian pastor at the Happier Hunting Ground, he asks him about the prerequisites for becoming a non-sectarian pastor. It turns out there are only three: the Call, money, and an audience.
Will Dennis succeed? Read the book and find out!
As the year approaches its end, I will finish this blogpost with a properly meditative quote from the non-sectarian pastor of the Happier Hunting Ground.