Morticians in love

Cover of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior FuneralsMorticians also fall in love.

This must have been happening since the beginning of time, but only now (to the best of my knowledge) has there been a such a rush of material on the love life of those who deal with the dead.

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals is a 2012 first novel by Welsh writer Wendy Jones. Set in small town Wales in the 1920s, Wilfred makes the kind of mistake that only the blurters of this world will identify with. He hears the sentence “Will you marry me Grace” come out of his mouth and crash onto the picnic rug when that was not what he was thinking at all. Almost immediately events get completely out of control. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a new love, the mother-in-law from hell and, of course,  the dead. Wilfred is at best naive, at worst a little dimwitted (especially about women), but he is unfailingly courteous to the dead. He is a decent man.

Cover of A Trick I Learned From Dead MenFast forward some eighty years and meet Lee Hart, a young mortician in London. His story is told in A Trick I Learned From Dead Men by Kitty Aldridge. The content of these two books is quite similar, but the styles of writing are very different. For that reason alone they are worth reading. Lee is surrounded by death both at work, and in unfolding episodes, at home as well. Yet he remains resolutely upbeat, positive about life and ready to love and be loved. He is a kind young man whose dead customers end up on the receiving end of some of the best conversations of their lives when they finally end up in his care.

In case this is all becoming too sweet and fluffy for your liking, fear not, for Evelyn Waugh produced an acid drop of a little book in The Loved One (first published in 1948). Set in Hollywood, there are two funeral parlours, one for humans (Whispering Glades) and one for pets (Happier Hunting Grounds). Senior Mortician Mr Joyboy,  a mysterious cosmetician, a murder, several corpses and a seemingly hapless Cover of The Loved Onepoet combine to make this Black Humour at its best.

But if you want soulful and beautiful, head straight to the library DVD section and watch the Japanese film Departures in which a young musician, having lost his position in the orchestra, applies for a job in what he thought was a travel agency. Instead he ends up as a Nokanshi (encoffineer) in a small Japanese town. In this film the taboos that cling to those who deal with the dead almost ruin his marriage.

And taboos there are. Western culture has separated us from dealing with death. I have never met a mortician, never met anyone who wanted to be in that line of work. Certainly it doesn’t crop up in career guidance at school. As a result, I felt quite squeamish reading bits of these books. So it was important for me to be reminded that there is a human side to dealing with death and that it is undeniably true:

Morticians also fall in love.

Waugh and Orwell

George Orwell & Eveyln Waugh in love and war
The same man : George Orwell & Eveyln Waugh in love and war

Two of my all time literary heroes are George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. The readability of their plots, the crispness of their prose and the 1930’s settings of many of their works has always appealed to me.

Although I have read several biographies of both I was unaware of how much esteem each felt for the other. Despite their differing views on religion and politics, it is surprising how much they had in common. Orwell, for example, was working on a review of Waugh’s works during his final illness and received letters of praise for both Animal Farm and 1984 from the latter. Both despised the effects of the Twentieth Century on Britain and the world; both hated political correctness, their public school upbringing and cant and hypocrisy; both were disgusted by relativism, material greed, ignorance and the rule of the ill-educated specialist. Basil Seal, the anti-hero of so many of Waugh’s books, is a typical example of the new man they fear and loathe.

Their compatibility is shown in one of the most moving chapters of the book in which Waugh visited the dying Orwell, an event of which I was hitherto unaware. What I wouldn’t give for a verbatim account of this meeting!

It cannot be a coincidence that both of these writers remain popular today. Their style, honesty and refusal to compromise have meant their works have survived while most of their contemporaries have been been forgotten. After reading Lebedoff’s book I feel inspired to re-read all of Waugh’s works, in addition to my regular perusal of Orwell’s.