A Requiem for William Cuthbert Faulkner

Featured Author

Article by John C. Henegan

Posted December 6, 2016

William Cuthbert Faulkner died 50 years ago at the age of sixty-four. His family had a small private service for his family and friends in Oxford at Rowan Oak, where he had lived most of his life. His was not the first funeral service to be held there. Caroline Barr, Faulkner’s house servant, a freedwoman who had been a second mother to Faulkner and his three brothers and who lived to be 100, had lain in a casket in the parlor of Rowan Oak 20 years earlier. Then a choral group had sung spirituals, and Faulkner eulogized “Mammy Callie” to the mourning families.

Faulkners grieved privately and buried their dead quickly. The prizes and awards and international fame that Faulkner had received during his lifetime did not cause the family to depart from its firmly held traditions. The day of his death family did not send an obituary to the local paper, and they were surprised to read the first news about his death which contained numerous errors.

Once word of Faulkner’s death went out over the wire services, reporters and journalists began arriving in Oxford and finding their way to Rowan Oak. There his brothers, Jack and John, took turns greeting the press, at the entrance of the Rowan Oak driveway on Old Taylor Road, a distance of 100 yards from the house proper. The press were turned away. The brothers asked that the journalists to honor the privacy of Faulkner’s wife, Estelle, and the family, who were there to comfort Estelle and to help make the arrangements for the next day. They told the media that interviews of the family and photographs of the grounds or the residence would not be permitted.

The journalistic onslaught became so great that the brothers held a press conference that evening at a local restaurant. There they agreed to answer questions about Faulkner’s death because so much erroneous information had by then published about Faulkner and the circumstances and even the location of his death. Later that evening, the Mayor of Oxford announced the time and route of the funeral procession. He also told them the site of the family plot, letting them know that the family had provided a place at the cemetery where the press could stand and watch the private burial at a distance. The Mayor finished with the same message that the brothers had given them: “Until he’s buried, he belongs to the family. After that he belongs to the world.”

Two years earlier, Faulkner told his nephew Jim that he wanted to be buried in the same plain wooden casket with a grey pall that Faulkner had picked out for his mother, Maud. After picking up Faulkner’s body at a sanatorium in Byhalia in the early hours of July 6, the brothers took the body to a funeral home in Oxford where they selected the casket and pall. They followed the hearse to Rowan Oak and helped place the casket and bier in the front parlor. When Estelle’s sister arrived later that day, she saw the plain wooden casket covered with the grey pall, and, without consulting anyone, she called the funeral home and told the director to come to Rowan Oak and pick up the casket. Faulkner’s body was picked up, re-deposited into a polished cypress casket with a green pall, and returned to Rowan Oak.

During this time, the Faulkner men had all left Rowan Oak and gone home to clean up and put on fresh clothes. When they returned, they were appalled to see Faulkner in a different casket. Nephew Jim started to call the funeral home and tell the director to return and place Faulkner in the first casket, but when he told his father and uncle what had happened, they began to laugh and told Jim that Bill would have enjoyed hearing the story about the switching of the caskets. They yielded with good humor to the wishes of Estelle’s sister and began helping with other pre-service preparations, the selection of casket and pall finally resolved.

The next afternoon the Reverend Duncan Grey, Jr., then Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Oxford, presided at the service that began at 2:00 p.m. that Saturday. The day was unseasonably hot, even for a Mississippi July day, and the house was without air conditioning.

Family and close friends stood in the parlor and the dining room, the rooms having been cleared for the casket and bier and the mourners. Over the whirr of electric fans, Reverend Grey read aloud from the Order of the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer. He comforted Estelle and the family with Job 19:25-27 and its ancient words of assurance:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

The Rector then read the Twentieth and Forty-Sixth Psalms and excerpts from the Eighth Chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, beginning at verse 14, passages that the Anglican Church had been using in its Burial for the Dead for 300 years without change (and which it still uses today).

It is unrecorded if the Rector gave a homily, and in any event, it would have been unnecessary. Most of them had known Faulkner much longer than even the Rector himself with one exception: William Styron, a young novelist from Virginia had traveled there with Bennett Cerf, Faulkner’s editor, to write about the day’s events for Life magazine. Styron was able to enter the residence only after Estelle, who, along with William, had read and enjoyed Styron’s first novel, had told Mr. Cerf that it was okay for Styron to come into the Faulkner home.

The service concluded with the Lord’s Prayer being said aloud in unison. The Faulkner men rolled the bier and the casket onto the front portico of the house, and the pallbearers placed the cypress casket in the waiting black hearse.

Afterwards, the hearse, followed by sixteen vehicles, entered Old Taylor Road. A local patrol car led the procession to the cemetery. It turned left onto South Lamar Street. From there, the procession moved north toward the courthouse square turning right at the marble statue of the Confederate soldier on the south of the courthouse lawn and then passing the War Memorial on the north side of the courthouse.

Faulkner had penned without attribution the epitaph for the servicemen of Lafayette County whose names appeared on the bronze plaque of the War Memorial that had been built and dedicated after the Korean War by the local VFW. The epitaph reads:

THEY HELD NOT THEIRS,
BUT ALL MEN’S LIBERTY
THIS FAR FROM HOME,
TO THEIR LAST SACRIFICE.

For a long time, these were the only words of Faulkner’s that appeared on any public building or monument in Lafayette County with the exception of the titles of Faulkner’s novels that had been made into movies and displayed on the marquee and film posters exhibited at the local movie houses.
On the afternoon of his burial, local businesses temporarily closed their doors, even though it was Saturday market. Many had posted the handbill that Nina Goolsby, Editor of The Oxford Eagle, had printed and distributed earlier that day:

IN MEMORY of
WILLIAM FAULKNER
This Business Will Be
CLOSED
From 2:00 to 2:15 PM
Today, July 7, 1962

Photographs of the procession as it wound slowly through the square show blacks and whites standing together and filling the sidewalks. They watched in silence, eyes fixed on the passing procession.

Today a bronze statue of Faulkner in his signature British tweed sports jacket and tie, sitting on a bench with pipe in hand, fronts the City Hall on the east side of the square where the procession passed. Faulkner sits comfortably staring at the point where the black hearse had turned right and north onto North Lamar Street.

The patrol car led the procession to Jefferson Avenue where the motor vehicles turned right. They remained on Jefferson until making a final left onto Sixteenth Street and going down the steep incline to what was then the new section of the cemetery. When the procession arrived, mourners who had not attended the private service were waiting to give their condolences to the family. After Rector Gray spoke to the family and said his final prayers, Faulkner’s casket was lowered into the earth. A photograph of the graveside burial published in a national news magazine is on display at Rowan Oak.

Earlier that day, as William Styron walked through the residence before Faulkner’s service, he found Shelby Foote in Faulkner’s library, which looks today as it did then, complete with oil portraits painted by his mother, Maud, and a bronze bust of Cervantes. Foote asked Styron to help him find The Marble Faun, with “My Epitaph,” an early poem by Faulkner. The final two stanzas of the poem conclude Styron’s now celebrated 1962 article about Faulkner’s funeral and the Faulkner biography by Joseph Blotner. They do not appear on his tombstone.

Faulkner said that he once told Malcolm Cowley that he wanted a simple epitaph: “He made the books and he died.” Neither this sentence nor for that matter any writing of Faulkner’s is inscribed on his tombstone or the Faulkner family monument. His tombstone bears a simple unadorned message — “Beloved, Go with God” — words almost certainly chosen by Estelle.

Rowan Oak and the Lafayette County Courthouse have become national icons of Oxford, and along with Faulkner’s grave, they are sites of pilgrimage. Rowan Oak sits on five and a half acres in a quiet residential neighborhood in the 90 degree turn on Old Taylor Road. The house is surrounded by the dense plot of 30 acres of land known as Bailey’s Woods just as it was when Faulkner purchased it in 1930.

Today the grounds of Rowan Oak are open to the public during daylight hours. For a modest fee, you will be admitted to the classic Greek Revival residence, which retains more than 90 percent of its original furnishings. Rowan Oak is open every day but Monday and certain Holidays. Displays about Faulkner’s life and career in the wide first and second floor hallways are extremely engaging with a good mix of narrative, images, and memorabilia.

The courthouse square is a pleasant walk or a short drive from Rowan Oak. During his lifetime Faulkner often walked to the square, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends. He went to conduct business or simply to sit on the courthouse benches and watch the people of Oxford go about their lives. Today you will sometimes see visitors sitting on the bronze bench where Faulkner now sits in front of City Hall, having their photograph taken with him.

The county courthouse has been restored since Faulkner’s passing. A quotation from one of Faulkner’s works about the influence of the courthouse in the mythical community of Jefferson, Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, where most of Faulkner’s works are set, has been placed on the outside of the courthouse. The VFW recently updated the War Memorial on the courthouse lawn, and Faulkner’s name now appears under the Memorial’s epitaph.

An avid reader of Faulkner could, if asked, fill virtually the entire square with quotes from Faulkner works about the people who lived in Jefferson and in Yoknapatawpha County and the events that took place on the square and elsewhere. Thankfully, this has not yet happened. Maps of Yoknapatawpha County prepared by Faulkner may be found in Absalom! Absalom! and Cowley’s edition of The Portable Faulkner. His works and maps are a proper guide through his mythical creation although long time residents can regal you with more details about Faulkner’s sublimation of “the actual into the apocryphal” of his creation.

Faulkner’s grave site is only a short distance from the square. Today an historical marker along the right-of-way of Sixteenth Street, the western boundary of St. Peter’s Cemetery, tells you when you are 30 steps from Faulkner’s grave. If you arrive at sundown, you may come upon two or three people who have raised a glass of bourbon to the memory of Faulkner before they go to dinner, a tradition begun by Willie Morris while he lived in Oxford as a writer-in-residence at the University. If you arrive at some other time, you may simply find, as I did on a recent Saturday afternoon, fresh flowers placed on his tombstone along with a few coins to commemorate his memory and the lives of the characters that he created in his works. Visitors can stand under the water oaks that have provided shade for the grave site since he was first lowered into the earth and read a passage from a favorite Faulkner work before heading home. Faulkner would have certainly enjoyed the toast, and one would like to think that he would not object to a reading from one of his works, particularly if one did not read aloud.