As do many of author Stephen Crane's stories, "The Upturned Face" deals with the horror of the American Civil War. The commander of their unit has just been killed, and two officers are trying to decide what to do next.
"What will we do now?" said the adjutant, troubled and excited.
"Bury him," said Timothy Lean.
The battle is still waging, but they order several enlisted men to take care of the burial. As bullets whiz overhead, the men hastily dig a grave. The officers decide that their dead leader's pockets should be searched, but no one wants to touch the body. They finally position it in the grave with the face turned upward and attempt to recite a prayer appropriate for a funeral, but they cannot remember it.
The adjutant suddenly remembered a phrase in the back part of the Spitzbergen burial service, and he exploited it with the triumphant manner of a man who has recalled everything, and can go on.
"Oh, God, have mercy--"
"Oh, God, have mercy--" said Lean.
"Mercy," repeated the adjutant, in quick failure.
"Mercy," said Lean. And then he was moved by some violence of feeling, for he turned suddenly upon his two men and tigerishly said, "Throw the dirt in."
A sharpshooter's bullet wounds one of the enlisted men, and they are sent back to the lines. Lean completes the job of covering the body; with each shovelful of dirt, a dreadful plopping sound follows until only the face is visible. Horror stricken by the sight of his face, Lean completes the task, which ends with a final "plop."
Crane combines elements of realism and naturalism in this story that once again demonstrates the randomness of death and the horrible realities of war.