A Good Embalmer

Clark Ashton Smith


Jonas Turple and Caleb Udley, joint owners of the sole undertaking establishment in ^Ramsville^ [Johnsville], were continuing an immemorial dispute.

"You couldn't embalm a salted herring," said Turple, with the air of jocose and rubicund contempt which he usually adopted in referring to his partner's technical abilities and methods. "Look at the job you did on old Aaron Webley, five years ago, when I was away ^at the embalmers' convention^ [on my honeymoon]. Of course no one would have been the wiser if the family hadn't decided to transfer him to their home lot in ^Georgetown, ten months after^ [Johnstown]. The condition of the corpse wasn't much of an advertisement for us. I believe in doing a thorough job, one that will endure and stand up under all vicissitudes. And I tell you, there's nothing like corrosive sublimate, and plenty of it. You can have your Peruvian bark, your camphor and cinnamon and other aromatics, and your sulphate of zinc; but all this stuff is mere trimming if you ask me."

Turple, a large, florid, middle-aged bachelor, who looked more like a restaurant owner than a mortician, terminated his remarks with a resonant sniff and eyed his confrere with semi-jovial belligerence.

"Sulphate of zinc is good enough for me," maintained Caleb Udley, with much acerbity. He was a thin, meager, deacon-like person, alternately bullied by his wife and his business partner. He was, however, more recalcitrant toward the latter than toward the former, and rarely made an attempt to uphold his own views.

"Well, you'll never shoot any of it into me," said Turple. "You'd make a mess of it anyway. I'd certainly hate to be at your mercy and have you try to embalm me, if I were dead."

"Even at that, there are times when I wouldn't mind having the chance," returned Udley, with a tart malice.

"The hell you say. Look here, Caleb, if I should die before you do, and you start your blundering operations on me, I'll simple rise up from the dead."

"But the dead don't rise," said Udley, who was not only something of a Sadducean, but was also rather literal-minded.


It is not the function of this story to record in detail, or even in rough outline, the lives of two country undertakers.

For many years after the discussion related above, Turple and Udley pursued the somewhat funereal tenor of their ways. In the face of their perennial disputation, half-humorous, half-contemptuous on one side and wholly acrimonious on the other, it would have been difficult to determine the exact degree of brotherly love which existed between them. Turple continued to deride his confrere's professional capacities and opinions; and Udley never failed to resent the derision. With slight variations, their quotidian quarrel was repeated a thousand times.

The situation was modified only by the admission of a third and younger partner, one Thomas Agdale, into the firm. Agdale, who was comparatively inexperienced, and was also mild-tempered, became the butt of both his seniors; and, in especial, of Udley, who thus succeeded in transferring to another victim some of the scorn and contumely which he himself endured at the hands of Turple.

Even undertakers, however, are not exempt from the common laws of mortality. Turple, who had long shown an apoplectic tendency, but nevertheless had not expected a so sudden and early demise, was found dead one morning in the local hotel-room which he had occupied for more than twenty years. His partners, as was natural, were deeply shocked and surprised by the news; but, since he had omitted to leave any instructions to the contrary, they proceeded to take charge of his body with all due expedition.

The feelings of Udley, when Turple's corpse was laid out before him on the embalming-table, were somewhat peculiar and difficult to analyze. How much of real regret or sorrow they included, I am not prepared to say: but, undeniably, there was a more or less furtive undercurrent of actual triumphancy, of self-vindication if not of vindictiveness. After all of Turple's manifold and life-long aspersions on his capabilities as an embalmer, Udley was now in a position to render the last services to his vilifier. It would not be proper to say that he rejoiced in this situation; but certainly his emotions were those of a wronged man who beholds the final balancing of the scales of justice.

Agdale was present, but Udley had resolved that he himself would perform everything necessary and would utilize the services of Agdale only in the mere lifting of the corpse into the grimly sumptuous casket that had been prepared for it.

The March afternoon was murky and foggy; and the lights had been turned on in the rear room of the undertaking parlor, where Udley and Agdale were about to begin their gruesome task. They gave a semi-nocturnal touch to the macabre scene.

"So I couldn't embalm a salted codfish, hey?" thought Udley to himself, remembering his partner's habitual jest with the sour resentment of one who is wholly without humor. "Well, we'll see about that."

He approached the pursy and somewhat abdominous corpse, and was about to begin the preliminary incisions. These, however, were not made-—at least not by Caleb Udley. For, even as he stooped above it, the cadaver stirred, its eyelids fluttered and opened, and that which had been the earthly shell of Jonas Turple sat up suddenly and heavily on the cold slab.

Udley leapt back. His lean frame exuded from head to foot an icy, instantaneous perspiration, and terror had deprived him of the power of thought and reason. Something seemed to have gone wrong with his heart, also; and he felt an awful choking sensation between the intolerably suspended beat. Agdale, who had a superstitious vein, had given one look at the animated corpse and was fleeing from the shop by the back door.

"What did I tell you, Caleb?" Udley was aware that the cadaver had spoken. Its voice seemed to issue from a deep vault, and was hideously muffled, as if it had made its way through some intervening medium of a viscous or semi-liquescent nature. It was not the familiar voice of the living Turple: but one could readily have imagined it as issuing from the lips of Lazarus after his resurrection.

If any further remarks or observations were made by the corpse, they were not heard by Udley. His heart, at the sound of that unnatural voice, had refused to continue its disordered throbbing, and he had fallen dead on the floor.


It was two hours later when Agdale mastered his terrors sufficiently to admit of returning. In the meanwhile, he had confided to several of the townspeople, including the doctor who had signed Turple's death-certificate, the unbelievable circumstances which had occasioned his hasty departure. It was a resolute and valiant committee of investigation which finally entered the undertakers' parlors.

The situation which revealed itself here was more mysterious and more remarkable than even the superstitious Agdale had expected. The corpse of Turple was lying decorously in the very same place and position in which it had been laid out by Udley and Agdale; and there was not the faintest hint of life or supernatural re-animation. Dr. Martin needed no more than a glance to re-confirm his original opinion, that the deceased was properly and lawfully dead.

For a few moments, no one noticed Udley. He had been alive when Agdale fled; and the latter not unnaturally surmised that Udley had followed suit. Somehow, no one had given him much thought.

It was Agdale who made the singular discovery that the new casket which had been provided for Turple's reception was now occupied—and that the occupant was Caleb Udley! But it remained for Dr. Martin, in his official capacity as coroner, to make a discovery that was even more singular, if possible. The corpse of Udley had been fully and efficiently embalmed; and the chief agent employed was corrosive sublimate. The body of Turple, however, was still in need of this service.

^xxx^ xxx was added by Smith.
[xxx] xxx was deleted by Smith.

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Printed on: October 31, 2020