Much like Willa Cather's other stories,"The Sculptor's Funeral" has as its theme the relationship between the artist and society, a relationship that imposes much sacrifice upon the artist who would be fulfilled. When Henry Seavens arrives with the casket of his mentor, Harvey Merrick, he is met by a group of men who have spoken only of the train arriving and the impossibility that the coffin will be accompanied by anyone, and how the snow may impede their passage with the wagon. Their myopic chatter stops when the coffin appears and they look "curiously at the palm leaf," ignorant of its significance that it represents an artist. Moreover, the brothers of Merrick do not even meet the train.
After Merrick's coffin arrives at the home of his parents, his mother comes running out, crying out loudly, an action that causes Steavens to turn away and close his eyes in repulsion for her crude display. He has a "sickening conviction that there had been some mistake" as he listens and as he glances around at the distasteful room, feeling repulsion for the woman's "orgy of grief." Then, after he meets Merrick's father, Steavens is convinced that there has been some error, that the sculptor with such "a splendid head" and so fine a soul could not have come from such a home and parents. Truly, he feels that the dead sculptor's accomplishments must be miraculous. For, when he looks at the sculptor's face, Steavens thinks he sees something "guarded,"
...as though he were still guarding something precious and holy, which might even yet be wrested from him.
It is not until he meets Jim Laird, the boyhood friend of Merrick, that Steavens recognizes any sympathy of feeling and understanding that Merrick could have been provided in such an environment. Furthermore, he comprehends the reasons for Merrick's leaving this environment as Laird, "the potter's clay," now an alcoholic, is a lost soul who has understood the beauties of art, but who has lacked the courage to follow its truth as has Merrick, "the porcelain vessel." Instead, he has died a spiritual death in the vulgar town.