The Funeral by Richard Matheson
This short, delightful tale from Matheson is funny, sweet, and pays homage to our favorite monsters. Strip it bare of the ostentatious characters though and this a story of a lesson learned, a story where man is not far removed from the monster and our initial prejudices ring unfounded.
As a student of creative writing, there is something here to teach as well. A subtle but undeniable character arc occurs in ten short pages if one is astute enough to note the difference in posture, presentation and prose used by the author to describe his “protagonist” Morton Silkline.
We first meet Mr. Silkline in a flare of fancy ten dollar words describing his “Cut-Rate Catafalque”. The name of the business implies that this flamboyance is in fact a façade. Silkline presents himself with the air of a high class, sympathetic host to the new “Grieved One” who has entered his office. He clasps his fingers in front of him placidly and wears his “funereal welcome” smile. He crosses the room on “whispering feet” and extends a “flaccid fingered hand”. The description here is so spot on if you have ever been an unfortunate guest at a funeral, you have likely been greeted by this man. Silkline’s entire script during the initial consultation with Ludwig Asper drips with the saccharine falseness of a used car salesman. Silkline’s fictional self is betrayed however, by his effort to restrain himself by rubbing his hands together like a fly about to enjoy a tasty meal and attempting to hide a boyish grin as he begins to understand the possible windfall from this particular patron’s loss.
We are at the bottom of the third page when Silkline finally asks for the name of the deceased. It is then that we learn Ludwig Asper is not your average grieved one. He is planning a funeral for himself. He tells an angry Silkline (angry because he thinks this has all been a joke and he is about to lose a potential jackpot) that he “never had a proper going off” and he regrets that. Asper wants to make up for it. Now we know that he is one of the undead. His red eyes, request for removal of the mirrors and “flapping out a small window” is enough for the reader to determine that Mr. Silkline is doing business with a vampire.
Silkline manages to pull himself together (presumably due to the cash he is expecting for his services) in order to prepare the “Eternal Rest Room”—the largest and likely most expensive parlor per Asper’s requests. (This makes one wonder what the cheaper rooms might be called-The Long Term Rest Room, The Pay-By-The-Hour Rest Room?). Silkline is understandably frightened and intimidated by Asper’s guests which include based on Matheson’s description, another vampire, a witch with her familiar, Ygor the hunchback lackey, a werewolf, a waxen-faced little man (a goblin perhaps?), and a half dozen more vampires. Morton Silkline is invited to the ceremony and ends up sitting between the witch and the waxen-faced man. The witch is the most outspoken, reminding the reader of a favorite crazy aunt who embarrasses the rest of the family during any important event. Asper, comfortable in his gold-trimmed casket reminds her of his seriousness. He wants this funeral to be a respectable, somber affair. Although the room is full of monsters, they behave as any family might.
As the service progresses, Jenny, the witch heckles the white-haired vampire performing the ceremony and is once again, reminded to be silent. The wolfman interrupts the funeral to leave and Silkline hears his claws running down the hall. The waxen-faced man’s frequent comments of “tasty” along with the rowdiness of his cohorts frustrate the white-haired vampire. Jenny, the witch chimes in one last time and Asper throws her out. Not one to leave quietly, Jenny uses her magic to set the rug and draperies on fire. The elder vampire turns to vapor and comes at her. The funeral erupts into mass chaos as chairs are overturned and vampires turn into bats. Poor Ludwig Asper begs for respect from his coffin while the waxen-faced man taunts Silkline with his trademark “tasty” comment. With this Silkline passes out thus ending the funeral service both for himself and the reader. Again, I have seen humans erupt into chaos like this at funerals and weddings. Nothing monstrous about it. I think this is where the brilliance of Matheson shines. We were presented with some grizzly monsters who behave just like us!
When we next catch up with Morton Silkline, he is back at work, still shaken from his most unusual but likely most profitable service yet. He is slumped in his chair still twitching occasionally although it had been a week since the monstrous funeral. His twitching however, doesn’t interfere with his ability to read the thank you note from Asper or to lovingly caress the pile of gold coins on his desk. He decides that “all things considered, the affair had not been really as bad as all—“. His thoughts are interrupted by an amorphous being entering his office.
He is of course taken aback by the tentacled thing in front of him but is told he has been recommended by a friend. Silkline’s nerves are calmed by the Midas touch of the gold on his desk and here is where we see a change. No longer the false-faced funereal-grinning cut-rate casket saleman, he does away with all the pomp and circumstance and only three paragraphs later, he asks the name of the deceased.
The greedy coffin salesmen is embracing who he really is. I felt and hoped that if the story had gone on he may have come to discover the importance of sincere sympathy over a big sale but this short story only leads us to speculate what Silkline might take away from his paranormal experiences. We do at least get to see a change in countenance and a more “to-the-point” style.