William Faulkner in the Age of the Modern Funeral Industry

By Bryan, Victoria M. | Southern Quarterly, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

William Faulkner in the Age of the Modern Funeral Industry


Bryan, Victoria M., Southern Quarterly


Literary corpses, like Addie Bundren's and Red's bodies in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary (respectfully), draws the reader's attention to the strained relationship between the living and the dead. This is particularly for Southern literature because of its tendency to focus on the grotesque body and the prevalence of the tension between folk traditions and modernization. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States began separating the dead from the living in unprecedented ways. Embalming became increasingly more popular in the wake of the Civil War.1 The practice of moving burial grounds and cemeteries outside of city centers2 and the rise of the funeral industry meant that the living now handled the dead significantly less often. As a result, literary encounters with the dead in Southern literature are often rife with spectacle and fear, creating sensationalistic shock for characters and readers alike.

The corpse plays an important role in our understanding of Faulkner's texts, as evidenced by the abundance of work available on the representations and significance of death in Faulkner's work.3 His characters' reactions to a face-to-face encounter with a corpse are markedly different depending on their places in the process of modernization and their resulting proximity to death. Faulkner explores differently modernized groups of people in his texts by illustrating their relationships with and reactions to dying. When As I Lay Dying 's Vardaman, who has also lived on a farm all of his life, asks if his mother is going to go to the same place as "all those [dead] rabbits and possums" (66), he exhibits a closeness to death that necessitates a different relationship with dying than that exhibited in Sanctuary, where Red is mourned at an elaborately orchestrated funeral where Faulkner sensationalizes his body. The difference lies in a character's financial ability to engage with the funeral industry. As I Lay Dying and Sanctuary illustrate a progression of the commodification of death and the rise of the death industry (which serve as markers of modernity just as the modernization of transportation or communication). As a result, readers must reconsider rural spaces of modernity that modernize differently than more urban areas where the dead are separated from the living through modern practices like embalming and the rise of the funeral home. By representing varied access to the funeral industry in differently modernized areas, Faulkner uses corpses to signify changes and disparities in the modern world.

Many critics have noted that modernization in its many forms drives the action of the novel,4 so specific attention should be given to the modernization of burial that drives the action of the novel. The modernization of death in America grew out of diverse intercultural encounters. Funereal practices as they existed toward the beginning of the twentieth century were impacted heavily by the cultural interactions brought about by global modernity. As John T. Matthews points out, the Bundrens have a "keen appetite for products delivered by an increasingly sophisticated technology and market: cheap false teeth, exotic bananas, electric toys, mechanically reproduced music" ("Machine Age" 87). Their interest in these markers of modernity grows significantly as they travel away from rural spaces and into more urban spaces where they are acted upon by modernizing forces and by the widespread effects of commercialization that such forces bring about. While the family still occupies a rural space they engage in folkways related to burial-like building Addie's coffin by hand-but as they enter the space of the town, Vardaman becomes increasingly more focused on having a banana,5 Anse takes the visit to town as an opportunity to purchase false teeth and a gramophone, and Dewey Dell sees the excursion as a chance to obtain abortive medicines.

Addie's death and her wish to be buried in Jefferson pull the Bundrens into an urban space whose modernization outpaces their rural surroundings. …

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