When Evelyn Waugh came to Hollywood in 1947 to discuss the film rights for Brideshead Revisited, he visited a graveyard: Forest Lawn Memorial Park. He had heard it praised as a place unsurpassed in beauty, taste, and sensitivity; a place where “faith and consolation, religion and art had been brought to their highest possible association.” But Mr. Waugh found the cemetery dripping with saccharine sentimentality, edged with macabre memorials, and repellent with cuteness. (Walt Disney’s remains, along with those of myriad other celebrities, are enshrined there.) Mr. Waugh found in that “theme-park necropolis” a grotesque denial of the reality of death, the opposite extreme of Donne’s holy sonnet. He found vulgar euphemisms marketed and crafted by entrepreneurial racketeers. He found, in the end, wonderful material for a story to satirize the bizarre American funeral-home industry.
In 1948, Evelyn Waugh introduced his novel The Loved One with a warning that his story, which he called a gruesome “little nightmare,” was not for the “squeamish.” He actually suggested that squeamish people should “return their copies to the library or the bookstore unread,” and save themselves from this mad, mortuary love-triangle. And he wasn’t joking. Many will, and understandably, choose to be spared from witnessing the rape of English culture by Hollywood kitsch. Perhaps the tragedy of the Anglo-American lover is a tale best left unheard. Evelyn Waugh, however, is a sly master at making such devilish degradations absolutely delicious. Most will, and understandably, read on.
Thus it runs. Dennis Barlow has an embarrassing job. He works for a pet cemetery called The Happier Hunting Ground. When his friend Sir Francis dies, Dennis makes arrangements for the funeral at the famous and prestigious cemetery, Whispering Glades. There, Dennis meets Aimée Thanatogenos, a funeral cosmetician, and falls in love. The head mortician, Mr. Joyboy, however, is pursuing Aimée as well. Dennis must keep his occupation, which makes a farce of the funeral business so revered by Aimée, a secret in order to win his ladylove from the oily Joyboy. Once Mr. Joyboy turns out to be a less-admirable character than Aimée first supposed, she turns to Dennis—only to discover at last the truth about his blasphemous profession. Affairs unravel rapidly from there, until rivals are suddenly and desperately united in the common purpose of furtively and artfully disposing of a very unexpected corpse.
The Loved One is crass, irreverent, perverse, and merciless. These qualities, however, are a source of sanity because they are the merciful means by which people of culture and reverence, made, as the Psalmist says, a little less than the angels, can have a good laugh. Chesterton famously wrote, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” Not only is it good to take things lightly, it is a good habit. It is even advisable to laugh at serious things now and then. In fact, this is especially advisable for serious things, since they are the most in need of a little jocularity. Nothing on this earth is, or ever should be held, beyond the ticklish reach of humor. Not even things as lofty as Love, Death, Art, or Religion. To cite Mr. Chesterton again, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it,” and well said.
All things should be taken with a sense of humor, which is only common sense. Humor may even be considered a basis for sanity, for it provides the relief and balance we all need to avoid insanity. It keeps us level. It keeps us healthy. We are refreshed more readily by absurdities than by analyses. Only a hat-chase on a windy day can bestow the hilarious and humbling and wholesome reminder that, though man is the steward of nature, he is subject to it at the same time. It is just one of the wonderful jests of the human race which all must run, even and especially when it is after a hat.
Though it is very funny, it is slightly awkward to recommend The Loved One. Mr. Waugh’s fly-leaf warning is given with good reason. The Loved One is, without doubt, a humorous story—but its humor might be considered inappropriate or indecent. Its humor certainly must be considered beyond the pale of the common courtesy and sensitivity we naturally show to those who are grieving a recent death. But it is not serious. Mr. Waugh is portraying a farce, vulgar though it may be, confident in the belief that it is healthy from time to time to poke fun at serious things—though The Loved One pokes pervasively, indeed.
If you do pick up this delightfully disgusting story, prepare yourself. It is not a normal story. It is really quite awful. Prepare yourself for feelings of antipathy and amusement for all of the absurd characters you will meet. It is dark; even gothic. There is no security. There is no hero. There is no loved one.
Mr. Waugh generously offered to donate proceeds from the book to Catholic charities. His Archbishop read The Loved One and declined the offer. Did Mr. Waugh cross the line with his book? It is possible. But consolation can always be found in the author’s motives. Mr. Waugh came to the United States and faced the chewing-gum trends of America with a stiff collar and a shiny bowler. He stood up and stood out in the name of an old civilization that was rapidly being destroyed and forgotten in the new world.
For Mr. Waugh, the Catholic Church was the one bulwark against the modern Dark Age. He looked with distaste on the mediocrities of pop culture, urban growth, and the epidemic of ugliness. The harsh treatment he gives in The Loved One to what he called the “Californian savages” was a genuine attempt to forestall the further deterioration of society through a cocktail of sheer mockery and shock therapy. Mr. Waugh would certainly encourage his readers to feel free to appreciate and enjoy the story as such, indecent though it is—for it is base with the highest intentions.
It is true that we will not always like what we see when we hold up the mirror. It is true that the American funeral industry offers a weird façade for fundamental Mickey-Mouse reality. But when we see something that disturbs us, the first step to remedying the situation may be to have a good laugh over it, even if it be over a matter as serious as the grave. Only then may we feel compelled to seek happier hunting grounds, in denial that our loved ones are simply wagging their tails in heaven as opposed to finding the fact that death is not proud. May it be so and may we, like Dennis Barlow, for all his intransigence, find ourselves quoting Poe over the graves of our loved ones:
…thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a scene with Mr. Joyboy played by Rod Steiger and his assistant Aimée Thanatogenos played by Anjanette Comer from the 1965 film The Loved One based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel of the same name.