Alison says that her father’s death was “his consummate artifice, his masterstroke,” because it was impossible to prove whether or not his death was suicide or an accident. There is, however, suggestive circumstantial evidence, like the fact that Helen asked Bruce for a divorce two weeks before his death, and also how Bruce had been reading and leaving around the house a copy of Albert Camus’s first novel, A Happy Death. Bruce left no suicide note, but in the book he highlighted one line: “He discovered the cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love—first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage.” Alison believes that quote to be an epitaph suitable to her parents’ marriage.
Bruce’s death exemplifies how blurry the line between reality and fiction can be—there is no way to ever know for certain whether his death was intentional or an accident; the empirical truth, as Alison continually points out, is inaccessible. The Camus quote further alludes to a cynical view of relationships that sadly applies to Bruce and Helen’s marriage—Bruce deceived her in courting her by omitting his homosexual tendencies, but “to her advantage” because she fell in love, whereas right before Bruce’s death, Helen’s acknowledgement of Bruce’s true deceptions were to her disadvantage.
At the same time, Alison notes that before his death, the family couldn’t have perceived Bruce reading A Happy Death as a sign of desperation, because her dad was always reading something. For instance, five days before his death, Bruce also left a comment in a bird watching book he was reading—was that a sign that he was thinking of committing suicide? Then Alison wonders if maybe he just didn’t notice the truck that hit him because he was thinking about the divorce, before commenting that she doesn’t believe her dad’s death was an accident. The night after she returned home from college after his death, Alison and her mother discussed it, with Helen saying that she believes Bruce’s death was intentional. Bruce’s headstone is an obelisk, a shape Bruce was obsessed with because he saw it as symbolizing life.
The title of Camus’s book, A Happy Death, relates directly to the subtitle of Fun Home, “A Family Tragicomic.” Alison Bechdel notes that, despite the Camus title, there is nothing particularly happy about the death in the book, just as the death of Bruce—though treated with absurd humor at times—is more ironic than truly funny, more tragic in its inevitability than it was surprising. Again, the irony of having a shape that Bruce believed symbolized life become his headstone that literally symbolizes his death is far more ironic than laugh-out-loud funny, shading more toward the tragic side of the “tragicomic.”
Alison then notes that her father’s grave, the location where he died, Alison’s childhood home, and the farm where Bruce was born all exist within a radius of one and a half miles. Many of Bruce’s relatives displayed the same provincialism as Bruce did. Still, Alison is puzzled why her decorative-arts-obsessed father and aspiring actress mother decided to live in Beech Creek.
The geographic proximity of everything in Bruce’s life only adds to the overall feeling of claustrophobia, repression, and inescapability present in Alison’s childhood and her portrayal of her father.
When Helen and Bruce were young, Helen flew to Europe to marry Bruce while he was in the army. They lived in West Germany for almost a year before Bruce’s father had a heart attack and Bruce had to return home to run the family business: a funeral home. Alison was born shortly after her parents returned to the U.S. After living at the funeral home for a short time, the Bechdels moved to a farmhouse and Alison’s brother Christian was born. Bruce began teaching high school English while working at the funeral home part-time. By the time the Bechdels moved to the gothic revival house and Alison’s youngest brother John was born, “Europe had disappeared” from her parents’ horizon entirely.
The death of Bruce’s father is the event that triggers the end of the youthful honeymoon period of Bruce and Helen’s relationship. While Bruce coming home to run a funeral home forces him to face death in a literal way, this event also metaphorically signals the death of the passion between Bruce and Helen. Later, both of Alison’s parents seek passion out in other aspects of their lives, like Bruce’s passion for house restoration, but this personal passion is far lonelier than the love of a symbiotic relationship, or family, can be.
During this time, Alison begins to confuse her family with The Addams Family. She doesn’t understand that the cartoon is making fun of suburban conformity, because the lofty ceilings and menacing furnishings of the Addams house mirror the spaces of Alison’s own home. Also, Alison, in her first-grade school photo, wearing a black velvet dress her father squeezes her into, and looks eerily similar to Wednesday Addams. Helen bears a striking resemblance to Morticia. But, of course, what makes Alison relate most strongly to The Addams Family is the family funeral home business, and “the cavalier attitude” which she comes to take toward death.
From a young age, Alison has difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction, and this blurring becomes associated with death thanks to Bruce’s part-time occupation as funeral home owner and operator. Death, then, perhaps comes to seem less real to Alison, or inherently more absurd, so that when it eventually strikes close to her, she has a particularly tough time dealing with her grief in reality.
Alison and her family called the funeral home the “Fun Home.” Alison’s Grammy lives in the front of the building, with the business in the back. Bruce is responsible for decorating the interior, so the rooms are hung with dark velvet drapery. Alison and her brothers have chores at the fun home, but they also manage to play and truly have fun there. They ride the folding chair trolley, mess around with the suction cup flags for sticking on the hoods of cars in a procession, and sniff the crushable smelling salt packets. When a new shipment of caskets arrive, the family lifts them with a winch into the showroom on the second floor of the garage.
Here is the heart of the “comic” in the “tragicomic” parts of this book—as children, Alison and her siblings manage to truly have fun in a funeral home. Rather than becoming bogged down in the morbid functions of the various items around the funeral home, the kids are able to see the goofy, fun possibilities of smelling salts and mourner’s flags, rather than focusing on the fact that they’re intended to help people who have been stricken by grief.
Alison says that though there are never any dead people in the showroom, it still always feels like a mausoleum. The scent of cedar hangs in the air, and velvet drapes muffle any outside sounds. It isn’t somewhere you would want to be alone in, yet Alison and her brothers also often sleep over in the front area of the funeral home where her Grammy lives, and it isn’t scary.
Their grandma living in a funeral home is a big part of the reason the Bechdel kids become desensitized to death—they see the funeral home more as an actual home then a place in which to congregate for grieving, and so when they’re later forced to grieve for Bruce in the “Fun Home” it is somewhat incomprehensible to them.
As kids, Alison and her brothers would sometimes spend the night at Grammy’s. At bedtime, they would beg Grammy to tell them the same story over and over: The story of when Bruce, as a boy, got stuck in the mud. She recites: once, when Bruce was no more than three, he wandered off into a neighbors’ muddy field, and Bruce got stuck in the mud. Eventually, the neighborhood mailman, Mort DeHaas, came along and spotted Bruce way out there in the field. Alison and her brothers interrupt the story to ask what would have happened if the mailman hadn’t seen him. Would he have died? Grammy ignores the questions and finishes the story by saying that the mailman yanked Bruce out of the mud. Bruce’s shoes stayed stuck, but Bruce was fine. Alison tells this part of the story over an image of a milkman, not a mailman, lifting toddler-aged Bruce from the mud, and includes a note that she knows the man was a mailman but always pictured him as “a milkman, all in white—a reverse grim reaper.”
The Bechdel childrens’ fixation on Grammy’s story about toddler-aged Bruce is indicative of Alison’s fascination with the line between reality and fiction—though they know this story must be true because Grammy has no reason to lie, the image of their fully-grown father being stuck in the mud doesn’t fit with the children’s image of their father’s present reality. Also, Alison visualizing Mort DeHaas as a milkman instead of a mailman indicates memory’s ability to be deceiving, and for people to project ideas onto memories that may not actually be true.
After that, Mort DeHaas brought Bruce back to Grammy’s kitchen, where she undressed him and then put him in the oven to dry off. Alison notes that she knew her Grammy was referring to a “cook-stove,” but all she could envision was the modern burning hot square oven Grammy had now.
Again, Alison picturing a modern oven instead of an old-school cook stove is an example of her youthful preference of fiction to reality, especially when thinking about her father.
The kids found the tale endlessly compelling, begging Grammy to tell it over and over before bed. By day, Alison has difficulty imagining her father naked, helpless, or put in an oven, though Alison notes that the way she once witnessed her Grammy forcefully help Bruce tie his surgical gown was “evocative” for her. In the funeral home, her father worked in the embalming room with the bodies, which Alison normally didn’t see before they were dressed and in a casket. But one day, Bruce called her back there to hand him a pair of surgical scissors, and she saw a dead, naked middle-aged man on the table. His genitals were shocking, but what really got Alison’s attention was his split-open chest.
Most children never see a dead body, and the visual Alison experienced this day in the Fun Home with her father seems to have shocked and traumatized her. Though the interaction is casual for Bruce, since he deals with dead bodies on a weekly basis, for Alison this interaction is far from casual, and it hangs in her mind for quite some time, causing her to mute or suppress her reactions to grief.
Alison gave her father the scissors without emotion, and she narrates that the exchange felt to her like a test. She wonders if this is how Bruce’s own father showed Bruce his first cadaver, or whether Bruce felt like he’d become too used to death and wanted to elicit a reaction from Alison. Alison says that she herself has used this strategy of accessing emotion vicariously—for years after Bruce’s death, she would use the opportunity to tell people of his suicide in order to sense in her listener the grief that eluded her. Alison says the emotion she had suppressed for that gaping cadaver felt like it stayed suppressed even when her own father died. When Alison got the phone call about her father’s death, she bicycled back to her apartment from work, cried genuinely for about two minutes while hugging her girlfriend Joan, and that was it.
Alison and Bruce’s use of tragedy to illicit emotion from others is likely caused by their respectively repressed states. Because Alison represses the feelings that come with Bruce’s death (possibly because of her earlier experience with the cadaver), she has difficulty feeling the depth of the tragedy of Bruce’s death, so she uses other people to try to feel it vicariously. Though Alison isn’t hit with the brunt of her grief right away, the grieving process becomes elongated for her because she is unable to process and work through her grief, instead keeping it as repressed as her emotions were upon seeing her first dead body.
When Alison drove home to Pennsylvania the night of Bruce’s death, she and her little brother John “greeted each other with ghastly, uncontrollable grins.” Alison says it could be argued that death is inherently absurd in the sense that grinning isn’t an inappropriate response. She adds that perhaps Camus’s definition of absurd—“that the universe is irrational and human life meaningless” applies to her father’s death as well. In college, Alison had to read The Myth of Sisyphus, and Bruce offered to lend Alison his copy but she refused. She says she wishes she could say she’d accepted the book, still had it, and he’d underlined a revelatory passage.
John and Alison’s eerie greeting indicates the Bechdel siblings’ inability to process and deal with their grief—instead, they both repress it, greeting each other with smiles instead of sobs, and not even discussing aloud the tragedy at hand. Also, Alison’s desire to learn something about her father’s death through his copy of The Myth of Sisyphus indicates the limits of fiction in reality—the book could teach her many things, but the truth about her father’s death isn’t one of them.
Alison says it’s not that she thinks Bruce killed himself because of his existential angst—Camus’ conclusion in the book, after all, is that suicide is illogical. However, Alison suspects Bruce of being a lazy scholar. One snapshot of her dad lighting a cigarette in a sports car reminds Alison of old photos of Camus. Alison says it’s probably just the cigarette—Camus was rarely pictured without one, and since his lungs were full of holes from tuberculosis, “who was he to cast logical aspersions at suicide.” Camus couldn’t have lasted much longer if he hadn’t died in a car crash at 46, Alison notes. On various occasions, Camus is said to have told friends that dying in a car accident would be idiotic—yet in January 1960, while Alison’s parents were still living in Europe, Camus was in a car that crashed into two trees and he died.
The death of Albert Camus in some ways becomes symbolic of the death of Bruce and Helen’s relationship—it could be argued that their love for each other—or at least their passion for each other—died when the couple left Europe to return to Beech Creek around the time of Camus’s death. Alison imagining her father as looking like Camus is another example of her blurring the line between reality and fiction—though the two figures weren’t necessarily that similar, it’s possible Alison connected them because of their similarly tragic ends.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote that we all live as if we don’t know we’re going to die, “But then, he wasn’t a mortician.” Alison suspects that Bruce was all too enchanted by the idea of death. In the letters Bruce would write Alison at college he sometimes would play the “perfect absurd hero, Sisyphus shouldering his boulder with detached joy” in regard to his job at the funeral home. Other times, Bruce would be despairing and sad about his proximity to early death. Alison has no letters about the suicides Bruce dealt with, but she believes his proximity to suicide might well have impacted his choice to partake in it.
Bruce as a Sisyphus-like figure is another example of Alison using fiction to understand her reality, though in this case Bruce’s metaphorical boulders were largely of his own creation. Also, Bruce shares his burden through written letters to his daughter, but he notably omits—or perhaps represses/ignores—any of the suicides he had to deal with. Perhaps they simply hit a little too close to home for Bruce.
Alison says that you would think a childhood spent so close to death might have enabled her to grieve more quickly than others, but, in fact, all those years near graves and bodies only made Bruce’s death “more incomprehensible” to Alison. Alison finds the death of her undertaker father impossible and even paradoxical, and she notices that Bruce’s hair—well-kempt and styled during his life—looks thin on his lifeless body.
Death is challenging for anyone to process, but Alison and her siblings have an even more difficult time than usual because their proximity and desensitization to death made their go-to stance in regard to death humor and distance. However, in the end Alison does realize that the true nature of Bruce’s death is tragic and extremely sad.
Alison is emotionless at the funeral, her sole emotion irritation when the funeral director touches Alison’s arm in consolation, causing her to shake it off with violence. This same irritation would overtake Alison for years afterward whenever she visited Bruce’s obelisk grave. One time, she found a cheesy armed services flag on top of Bruce’s grave, and hurled it into the nearby cornfield. Whether intentional or accidental, Bruce’s death was idiotic any way you looked at it, Alison narrates. Over two images of Alison first looking at the grave and then lying down next to it, Alison tells herself that her father is really down there, “Stuck in the mud for good this time.”
Again, even at Bruce’s funeral Alison can’t process or even feel her own sadness. If she were able to grieve and let her repressed feelings out, she might not be so disproportionately angered by the funeral director touching her arm, or the flag stuck on Bruce’s grave—instead, years later, Bruce’s death is still like an open wound for Alison, one that won’t heal until she openly and fully deals with it. Further, perhaps Alison could only process the fact that he was “stuck in the mud for good” through writing, drawing, and sharing this memoir with the world.