A Funeral by August Strindberg
The cooper sat with the barber in the inn at Engsund and played a
harmless game of lansquenet for a barrel of beer. It was one o'clock
in the afternoon of a snowy November day. Hie tavern was quite empty,
for most people were still at work. The flames burned brightly in
the clay fire-place which stood on four wooden feet in a corner, and
looked like a coffin; the fir twigs on the ground smelt pleasantly;
the well-panelled walls kept out all draughts and looked warm; the
bull-finch in his cage twittered now and then, and looked out of the
window, but he had to put his head on one side to see if it was fine.
But it was snowing outside. The innkeeper sat behind his counter and
reckoned up chalk-strokes on a black slate; now and then he interjected
a humorous remark or a bright idea which seemed to please the other two.
Then the great bell in the church began to toll with a dull and heavy
sound, in keeping with the November day.
"What the devil is that cursed ringing for?" said the cooper, who felt
too comfortable in life to enjoy being reminded of death.
"Another funeral," answered the innkeeper. "There is never anything
"Why the deuce do people want to have such a fuss made about them after
they are dead," said the barber. "Trump that, Master Cooper!"
"So I did," said the cooper, and pocketed the trick in his leather
Down the sloping road which led to the Nicholai Gate, a funeral
procession wended its way. There was a simple, roughly planed coffin,
thinly coated with black paint so that the knots in the wood showed
through. A single wreath of whortleberries lay on the coffin lid. The
undertaker's men who carried the bier looked indifferent and almost
humiliated because they were carrying a bier without a cover and
Behind the coffin walked three women—the dead man's mother and her two
daughters; they looked crushed with grief. When the funeral reached
the gate of the churchyard, the priest met it and shook hands with the
mourners; then the service began in the presence of some old women and
apprentices who had joined the procession.
"I see now—it is the clerk, Hans Schönschreiber," said the innkeeper,
who had gone to the window, from which he could overlook the churchyard.
"And none of his fellow-clerks follow him to the grave," said the
cooper. "A bad lot, these clerks!"
"I know the poor fellow," said the barber. "He lived like a church
mouse and died of hunger."
"And a little of pride," added the innkeeper.
"Not so little though," the cooper corrected him. "I knew his father;
he was a clerk too. See now! these fellows who go in for reading and
writing die before their time. They go without dinner and beg if
necessary in order to look fine gentlemen; and yet a clerk is only a
servant and can never be his own master, for only the King is his own
master in this life."
"And why should it be more gentleman-like to write?" asked the barber.
"Isn't it perhaps just as difficult to cut a courtier's and to make him
look smart, or to let someone's blood when he is in danger of his life?"
"I would like to see the clerk who would take less than ten years to
make a big beer barrel," said the cooper. "Why, one knows the fellows
require two years to draw up their petitions and such-like."
"And what is the good of it all?" asked the innkeeper. "Can I scribble
such letters as they do, but don't I keep my accounts all right? See
here I draw a crucifix on the slate—that means the sexton; here I
scribble the figure of a barrel—that stands for the cooper; then in a
twinkling, however many strokes I have to make, I know exactly how much
each has drunk."
"Yes, but no one else except yourself can read it, Mr Innkeeper,"
objected a young man who had hitherto sat silent in a corner.
"That is the best of it," answered the innkeeper, "that no one can poke
his nose into my accounts, and therefore I am just as good a clerk as
The cooper and the barber grinned approval.
"I knew the dead man's father," resumed the innkeeper. "He was a clerk
too! And when he died I had to rub out many chalk-strokes which made
up his account, for he wanted to be a fine gentleman, you see. All the
inheritance he left to the son, who now lies with his nose pointing
upwards, was a mother and two sisters. The young fellow wanted to be a
tradesman in order to get food for four months, but his mother would
not consent; she said it was a shame to step downward when one was
above. And heavens, how the poor young fellow had to write! I know
exactly what went on. The three women lived in one room and he in a
rat-hole. All he could scrape together he had to give them; and when he
came from work to eat his dinner, they deafened him with complaints.
There was no butter on the bread, no sugar on the cakes; the elder
sister wanted to have a new dress, and the younger a new mantle. Then
he had to write through the whole night, and how he wrote! At last
when his breast-bone stuck out like a hook and his face was as yellow
as a leather strap, one day he felt tired; he came to me and borrowed
a bottle of brandy. He was melancholy but also angry, for the elder
sister had said she wanted a velvet jacket such as she had seen in the
German shop, and his mother said ladies of their class could not do
with less. The young fellow worked and slaved, but not with the same
zest as formerly. And fancy! when he came here and took a glass to
ease his chest, his conscience reproached him so much that he really
believed he was stealing. And he had other troubles, the poor young
fellow. A wooer came after the younger sister—a young pewterer from
Peter Apollo Street. But the sister said 'No!' and so did the mother,
for he was only a pewterer. Had he been a clerk, she would have said
'Yes' and persuaded him that she loved him, and it is likely that she
would really have done so, for such is love!"
All laughed except the young man, who struck in, "Well, innkeeper,
but he loved her, although she was so poor, and he was well off; that
proves that love can be sincere, doesn't it?"
"Pooh!" said the innkeeper, who did not wish to be interrupted. "But
something else happened, and that finished him. He went and fell in
love. His mother and sister had not counted on that, but it was the law
of nature. And when he came and said that he thought of marrying, do
you know what they said?—'Have you the means to?' And the youth, who
was a little simple, considered and discovered that he had not means
to establish a new family since he had one already, and so he did not
marry; but he got engaged. And then there was a lot of trouble! His
mother would not receive his fiancée, because her father could not
write, and especially because she herself had been a dress-maker. It
was still worse when the young man went in the evenings to her, and
would not stay at home. A fine to-do there was! But still he went on
working for his mother and sisters, and I know that in the evening
he sat and wrote by his fiancée's side, while she sewed, only to
save time and to be able to be near her. But his mother and sisters
believed evil of the pair, and showed it too. It was one Sunday about
dinner-time; he told me himself the young fellow, when he came here to
get something for his chest, for now he coughed terribly. He had gone
out with his fiancée to Brunkeberg, and as they were coming home over
the North Bridge, whom did they meet but his mother and sisters? His
fiancée wanted to turn back, but he held her arm firmly and drew her
forward. But his mother remained standing by the bridge railings and
looked into the water; the elder sister spat before her, and did the
same, but the younger—she was a beauty! She stood still and stared
at the young woman's woollen mantle and laughed, for she had one of
English cloth—and just because of that, her brother's fiancée had to
wear wool. Fancy the impudent hussy!"
"That was simply want of sense in the child," said the young man.
"Want of sense!" exclaimed the cooper indignantly. "Want of sense!" But
he could not say any more.
The innkeeper took no notice of the interruption and continued: "It was
a Christmas Eve, the last Christmas Eve on which he was alive. He came
to me as usual to get something for his chest, which was very bad.
'A Merry Christmas, Hans!' I said. I sat where I am sitting now, and
he sat just where you are sitting, young sir. 'Are you bad?' I asked.
'Yes,' he answered, 'and your slate is full.' 'It doesn't matter,' I
answered, 'we can write down the rest in the great book up there. A
glass of hot Schnapps does one good on Christmas Eve.' He was coughing
terribly, and so he took a drink. Then his tongue was loosened. He said
how miserable and forlorn he felt this evening. He had just left his
home. The Christmas table was laid. His mother and sisters were soft
and mild, as one usually is on such an evening. They said nothing, they
did not reproach him, but when he took his coat and was about to go
out, his mother wept and said it was the first Christmas Eve that her
son was absent. But do you think that she had so much heart as to say
'Go to her, bring her here, and let us be at peace like friends.' No!
she only thought of herself, and so he went with an aching heart. Poor
fellow! But hear what followed. Then he came to his fiancée. She was
glad and happy to have him, and now she saw that he loved her better
than anything else on earth. But the young man, whose heart was torn
in two, was not so cheerful as she wished him to be, and then she
was vexed with him, a little only of course. Then they talked about
marriage, but he could not agree with her. No, he had duties towards
his father's widow. But she quoted the priest who had said a man should
leave father and mother and remain with his wife. He asked whether he
had not left his mother and home this evening with a bleeding heart in
order to be with her. She replied that she had already noticed, when he
came, that he was depressed because he was going to spend the evening
with her. He answered it was not that which depressed him, but his
having to leave his old mother on Christmas Eve. Then she objected that
he could not deny he had been depressed when he came to her—and so
they went on arguing, you can imagine how!"
The cooper nodded intelligently.
"Well, it was a pleasant Christmas for him. Enough! The young fellow
was torn in two, piece by piece; he never married. But now he lies
at rest, if the coffin nails hold; but it was a sad business for
him, poor devil, even if he was a fool. And God bless his soul! Hans
Schönschreiber, if you have no greater list of debts than you had with
me, they are easily settled!"
So saying, the innkeeper took his black slate from the counter, and
with his elbow rubbed out a whole row of chalk-strokes which had been
made under a hieroglyph which looked like a pen in an inkpot.
"See," said the barber, who had been looking through the window to hide
his red eyes, "see, there she is!"
Outside in the churchyard the funeral service was at an end; the priest
had pressed the hands of the mourners and was about to go; the sexton
plied his spade in order to fill up the grave again, as a woman dressed
in black pressed through the crowd, fell on her knees by the edge of
the grave, and offered a silent prayer. Then she let fall a wreath of
white roses into the grave, and a faint sobbing and whispering was
audible as the rose leaves fell apart on the black coffin lid. Then
she stood up to go, erect and proud, but did not at first notice in
the crowd that her dead lover's mother was regarding her with wild
and angry looks as though she saw her worst enemy, who had robbed her
of her dearest. Then they stood for a moment opposite one another,
revengeful and ready for battle; but suddenly their features assumed
a milder expression, their pale faces twitched, and they fell in each
other's arms and wept. They held each other in a long, convulsive
embrace, and then departed side by side.
The innkeeper wept like a child without attempting to hide his emotion,
the barber pressed his face against the window, and the cooper took the
cards out of his pocket as though to arrange them; but the young man,
his head propped in his hands, had placed himself against the wall in
order to have a support, for he wept so that his whole body shook and
his legs trembled.
The innkeeper first broke the silence. "Who will now help the poor
family? The pewterer would be accepted now, were he to make another
"How do you know that, innkeeper?" asked the young man, much moved, as
he stepped into the centre of the room.
"Well, I heard it yesterday when I was up there helping at the
preparations for the funeral. But the pewterer will not have her now,
as she would not have him then."
"Yes he will, innkeeper!" said the young man. "He will have her though
she were ever so selfish and bad-tempered, poor, and wretched, for such
So saying, he left the astonished innkeeper and his friends.
"Deuce take me—that was he himself!" said the barber.
"Things do not always end so happily," remarked the cooper.
"How about the clerk?" objected the barber. "No, they did not end well
with him, but with the others, you know. They had, as it were, more
right to live than he, the young one; for they were alive first, and he
who first comes to the mill, grinds his corn first."
"The young fellow was stupid, that was the whole trouble," said the
"Yes, yes," concluded the innkeeper. "He certainly was stupid, but it
was fine of him anyhow."
In that they were all agreed.