Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2279
At Sir Francis Hinsley’s deteriorating Hollywood bungalow, Sir Francis and his young friend, Dennis Barlow, sip whisky and soda. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie pays a visit to his fellow Englishmen, and Sir Francis explains one of his problems in the Megalopolitan Pictures publicity department. His client, Juanita del Pablo, has been deemed too sexy given the current religious climate. Dennis has also had work troubles; his contract at Megalopolitan expired three weeks before and was not renewed. Sir Ambrose gives Dennis a lecture about the “responsibility” of being an Englishman in Hollywood, stressing that there are certain “jobs that an Englishman doesn’t take.” After Sir Ambrose’s departure, Sir Francis surmises that his friend has “heard something” about Dennis Barlow’s new job.
Dennis has certainly taken one of the jobs that Sir Ambrose warned about. After dinner, Dennis goes to work as a pet undertaker at The Happier Hunting Ground pet cemetery. As he reads a poetry anthology, the phone rings and Mrs. Theodora Heinkel informs him that her little dog, Arthur, has died. Dennis drives to the Heinkels’ house and meets Mr. Heinkel in the garden. The two men pack up the dog and place him in Dennis’s van and then plan funeral arrangements for Arthur. Mr. Heinkel chooses The Happier Hunting Ground’s Grade A funeral service that includes the freeing of a white dove and a yearly card of “remembrance” to the Heinkels. Dennis transports the dog back to The Happier Hunting Ground, stows Arthur in a large refrigerator to await cremation, retrieves his supper from the same refrigerator, and returns to his book of poetry while he eats.
Dennis Barlow is “happy in his work,” but his new profession has taken a serious toll on his social status. He is no longer invited to Hollywood parties. Dennis took part in World War II as a member of the transport command; during this time, his only published book of poetry was released. The poems were “extravagantly praised” but were not widely published because of wartime paper restrictions. After the war, Dennis went to Hollywood to write a screenplay about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley for Megalopolitan Pictures. But studio life was too similar to military life for Dennis; he “despaired” while working there. Apparently, Megalopolitan did not think he was suited for screenwriting either.
However, Dennis is content at his disreputable job as a pet undertaker. He considers it a “worthy trade.” Sir Francis, on the other hand, is failing at his job at Megalopolitan. He tries to write a “new life-story” for Juanita del Pablo, but the “Grand Sanhedrin” of the studio rejects it resoundingly. Sir Francis is sent home for a week to work on the project but the Studio immediately begins to look for his replacement.
Sir Francis tries to work from home but his secretary is reassigned to the Catering Department at Megalopolitan. He tries to return to the studio to work but the Transportation Captain will not send a car to pick him up. After Sir Francis takes a taxi to the studio, he finds his replacement has already established himself in his office and thrown away all of his “junk.” Sir Francis’s superior will not speak to him but his boss’s boss confirms that he has been terminated.
The next day, the talk among the Englishmen at the Cricket Club is all about Sir Francis Hinsley’s suicide. Sir Ambrose Abercrombie arrives and attributes his friend’s death to the fact that he “lost face” by taking in Dennis Barlow, who is a disgrace to the English expatriates in Hollywood. Sir Ambrose, however, has left the funeral arrangements for Sir Francis up to Dennis. Sir Ambrose then warns the other members of the Cricket Club that it is crucial that Sir Francis have a respectable funeral—and they might all have to contribute toward it.
Dennis Barlow, who found Sir Francis Hinsley’s body hanging from the rafters in his home, drives to Whispering Glades Memorial Park to make arrangements for his friend’s funeral. Dennis is curious about the place because The Happier Hunting Ground emulates many of the practices of the larger cemetery. Wilbur Kenworthy (also known as the Dreamer) established Whispering Glades as a “Happy Resting Place” for “Loved Ones” (dead people) and a comforting spot for “Waiting Ones” (the deceased’s family and friends). Dennis meets with a Mortuary Hostess who explains that the park is zoned into areas like the Pilgrims’ Rest and The Lake Isle. Dennis chooses a plot at Poets Corner for Sir Francis as a nod to his writer’s background. The Mortuary Hostess also needs to confirm with Dennis that Sir Francis was a Caucasian because Whispering Glades is a “restricted park.” Dennis chooses a casket and a shroud for Sir Francis and puts down a deposit with the Mortuary Hostess.
Dennis finds the Mortuary Hostess to be a forgettable young lady but is entranced by the cosmetician who later enters the room. He finds her to be a “sole Eve in as bustling hygenic Eden” with a sensual mouth and a “rich glint of lunacy” in her eyes. The cosmetician questions Dennis about Sir Francis’s “Essential Data” such as complexion and personality so she and the mortician can make the dead Sir Francis as close as possible to the living Sir Francis.
As the entrancing cosmetician finishes her questions, the “forgotten” Mortuary Hostess reappears to take Dennis to the burial site. Dennis, however, decides he has seen enough for one day and takes the plot without looking at it.
Dennis manages to secure three days’ bereavement leave from The Happier Hunting Ground for Sir Francis’s funeral. Mr. Schultz gives his consent reluctantly and rails against people who spend thousands to bury “relations they’ve hated all their lives” while they bury the animals who have “stood by them” their entire lives on the cheap. Dennis prepares the funeral service with Sir Ambrose, who wants an original poem to read at the funeral. He assigns Dennis the task of writing the poem.
Meanwhile at Whispering Glades, Mr. Joyboy, Senior Mortician, delivers the body of Sir Francis to the cosmetician, whose name is Aimee Thanatogenos. Although Mr. Joyboy is not handsome “by the standards of motion-picture studios,” the girls at Whispering Glades idolize him. Mr. Joyboy has given the corpse of Sir Francis a special touch, a “Radiant Childhood smile,” as a sign of his feelings for Miss Thanatogenos. Aimee applies garish makeup to the corpse in anticipation of the muted lighting in the viewing room and the chancel, and the outfitters come to put Sir Francis in his shroud. Mr. Joyboy returns to adjust Sir Francis’s corpse into a “resigned” pose.
Dennis returns to Whispering Glades to see that everything is in order for Sir Francis’s funeral. He enters the Slumber Room, where the body reposes, and is taken aback by how “inhuman” it looks. Sir Francis’s face is “a painted and smirking obscene travesty” that is “ageless” and “horrible.” Dennis seems to recoil from the body because it has been sanitized and prettified to the point that it no longer seems like a dead body. Meanwhile, Aimee Thanatogenos admires her cosmetic work and assumes that Dennis likes it also.
Lower-ranking figures from Hollywood studios come to the visitation; the more powerful individuals will come to the funeral the next day. Sir Ambrose also makes a visit to make sure everything is in order. Dennis drives to the University Church, where the funeral will take place; it is like a movie set, with a voice-over explaining its historical features. The church is a reproduction of a church in Oxford, England.
Because Dennis still needs to write his poem for the service, he takes an electric boat ride to the Lake Island of Innisfree, one of the Park’s most exclusive areas. The man who runs the boat tells Dennis that couples typically go to the island “to neck” in private. It looks like a natural haven, but it is actually a “mechanical and scientific” site that plays the sound of bees buzzing over a loudspeaker rather than posing the danger of actual bees.
Dennis writes a poem for the funeral; it is crass and refers to Sir Francis’s “red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue” after his suicide. As disgusting as it is, Dennis’s description is a true picture of what really happened, unlike the sanitized corpse that lies at Whispering Glades.
As Dennis sits under a shade tree, Aimee Thanatogenos appears. When Dennis tells her he is writing a poem, her impersonal manner toward him changes. Aimee believes it is a “wonderful thing to be a poet.” When Dennis teases her that she too has “a poetic occupation,” Aimee answers seriously—she does see her work as art. When Dennis shows curiosity, Aimee explains how she ended up in her profession. Dennis quotes from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.” When Aimee thinks he wrote it, Dennis does not correct the misunderstanding. They leave the Lake Island of Innisfree together.
Mr. Joyboy continues to send smiling corpses to Aimee; to the other cosmetologists, he sends corpses with expressions that are “stern or resigned or just plumb vacant.” Aimee is confused by Mr. Joyboy’s attentions, especially since she has begun to correspond with the “Guru Brahmin,” an “oracle” who writes an advice column in the local newspaper. Aimee wrote to the Guru Brahmin once before as she tried to sort out her feelings for Mr. Joyboy. This day, however, Aimee writes her longest letter yet to the Guru about Dennis Barlow. Aimee confesses her concerns about Dennis; even though she is more attracted to him than she is to Mr. Joyboy, she believes he is not an “admirable character.” He is “cynical” about things that are “Sacred” and does not seem to practice any religion. She is particularly disturbed by the way he speaks irreverently about the “Works of Art” (which are actually just replicas of famous art works) at Whispering Glades, which she believes are the “epitome of all that is finest in the American Way of Life,” and she worries because some of the poems he has written for her are not ethical.
That day, as Dennis cremates animals at The Happier Hunting Ground, he searches The Oxford Book of English Verse for a poem to give Aimee. He has been passing off the works of the great English poets as his own, but the great English poets are “uncertain guides in the labyrinth of Californian courtship” because they are artists and not salesmen. Ultimately, work calls Dennis away from his search for poetry.
At the mortuary canteen, Mr. Joyboy holds court with the other embalmers during lunch and then asks Aimee to walk with him in the garden. Mr. Joyboy informs Aimee that the Dreamer, Dr. Kenworthy, has selected her to be the first female embalmer at Whispering Glades. He then invites her to celebrate her promotion by having supper with him and his mother that evening. Aimee keeps her date with Dennis immediately after work, but Dennis sends her into “a rage” by inquiring about her future salary and musing that they “could get married” on that sum.
Aimee prepares for her dinner with Mr. Joyboy as she would prepare for a date, but the evening is a disappointment. Despite his elevated status at work, Mr. Joyboy’s home life is unremarkable at best. Mrs. Joyboy, his mother, is a bitter woman who does not enjoy any special treatment from her son. She serves them an unremarkable dinner and pays more attention to her pet parrot, Sambo, than to Aimee.
The Guru Brahmin with whom Aimee has been corresponding is, in fact, two “gloomy men and a bright young secretary.” When Aimee writes to the Guru about her disappointing visit to Mr. Joyboy’s house, Mr. Slump writes her a private response. He advises her that “a man who will cheerfully take his part in the humble chores of the home is worth ten glib poets.” Aimee looks at Dennis’s latest poetical ode to her and a tear runs down her cheek.
At the Happier Hunting Ground, Dennis tells Mr. Schultz that he wants a promotion so he can get married, but Mr. Schultz gives him little hope that he will get one. Dennis and Mr. Schultz organize a full funeral for an Alsatian dog that morning, complete with a service by a nonsectarian clergyman, the Reverend Errol Bartholomew. After the service, Dennis asks the Reverend about his profession, trying to determine if “a non-sectarian clergyman [is] the social equal of an embalmer” like Mr. Joyboy.
Later, Aimee and Dennis meet at the Lovers’ Nook at Whispering Glades. They sit in the Lovers’ seat that is inscribed with verse by Robert Burns; Dennis feels relief that he never gave Aimee any of Burns’s poems. Aimee and Dennis become engaged at that spot.
The next day, the corpse that comes to Aimee from Mr. Joyboy is not smiling but bears “an expression of...bottomless woe.”
Aimee’s letter to the Guru Brahmin three weeks later reveals that she still feels reservations about marrying Dennis. He is still “unethical” and “cynical,” and he shows too much interest in “technical matters” about her job. Dennis continues to leave plagiarized poetry on her worktable. One morning, on an “impulse,” she shows one of the poems to Mr. Joyboy. Mr. Joyboy takes an interest and also invites Aimee to the funeral of Mrs. Joyboy’s parrot, Sambo. Aimee is destined to go to the Happier Hunting Ground.