The novel is introduced with an epigraph from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”. This poem explores the impermanence of life and the value of artistic beauty, like the artistic beauty found in the song of a nightingale. The particular section used in the epigraph comes from lines 24-27 of the poem, where Keats focuses in on the effects of old age and the “death” of youthfulness.
Summary: Section 1
The story begins with an omniscient narrator describing in detail the scene of a funeral for the unnamed protagonist (the everyman). The everyman’s grave is surrounded by mourners. Present at the grave are a few of his former colleagues, his daughter Nancy, some elderly people who live at the retirement village where the everyman had been living, his two sons Randy and Lonny, his older brother Howie, and Howie’s wife. The second of his ex-wives, Nancy’s mother Phoebe, is also present. Phoebe has had a stroke and her right arm hangs down limply at her side. Nancy asks Phoebe if she wants to say anything at the funeral. Phoebe refuses, and says that she is finding it hard to believe that the everyman is gone. Maureen, the everyman’s former private nurse, who was not invited, has also come to mourn his passing.
Nancy gives a long address to the mourners. She provides context for the everyman’s connection to the cemetery, telling them that the everyman’s grandmother and grandfather are buried there, and that the everyman’s grandfather was one of the cemetery’s founders in 1888. Nancy describes how her great-grandfather owned and ran a boarding house in Elizabeth, New Jersey and how he served as first cemetery chairman. She draws attention to the neglected state of the cemetery as it is in modern day. It has been vandalized, many of the graves have fallen over, and it is hemmed in by both the airport and the New Jersey Turnpike. Despite this, Nancy has chosen to bury the everyman in this graveyard because she wants him to be buried close to his loved ones and relatives. She drops a clod of earth on the coffin, says a few sad words to his coffin and begins to cry.
The everyman’s brother Howie is next to drop earth on the coffin. Howie is 77 years old, in good health and has been all his life. He whispers to his wife that it doesn’t make sense that his younger brother has died before him. To the mourners, Howie describes the everyman’s last years, when the everyman was in poor health and was lonely. Howie describes how they used to speak on the phone until near the end of the everyman’s life, when he cut out Howie for reasons that Howie doesn’t understand. Howie then reflects back on the everyman’s character and work life. The everyman had loved painting from high school onwards. When he retired from his advertising job, where he had been successful first as an art director then creative director, he painted every day. Howie says that the everyman should have lived longer. This, he says, is something almost everybody who has buried a loved one in the cemetery has said about them.
Howie recalls the details of the everyman’s childhood growing up and helping out in their father’s jewelry and watch repair shop. He says that watching the artisans at work as well as looking at the facets of diamonds through their father’s jewelry loupe (a small magnifying glass) gave the everyman the inspiration to become an artist, while for Howie, the diamonds simply made him want to make money. The everyman got on well with the nice, pretty sales assistants his father hired for the shop, and he was good at the tasks he was set. Their father sold wedding rings mostly to local working class immigrant families, and was popular with his customers for his generous pricing and credit. Customers sometimes invited him and his family to their weddings. Howie says that although times were hard, from the Depression to World War II, life was made lively by the weddings, salesgirls, trips to Newark carrying valuable diamonds to the diamond workers, and the ritual of putting away the jewelry trays at night.