Fun Home

Fun Home Summary and Analysis of "A Happy Death"


This chapter begins with a drawing of a newspaper headline, which Bechdel uses to reveal that her father died after being hit by a truck. Bechdel believes that he committed suicide. Although there is no definitive proof, Bechdel points to several pieces of circumstantial evidence that support her conclusion. Then, she admits that she might just have convinced herself that her father's death was intentional because it is less painful for her that way. Bechdel reveals that her mother had asked her father for a divorce two weeks before he died.

Bechdel marvels at the fact that her father spent his whole life in a relatively limited geographical area. She cannot understand why her cultured parents, especially her mother (who studied acting in New York City), would have chosen to remain in a small Pennsylvania town for their entire lives. Both Bruce and Helen Bechdel encouraged Alison and her brothers to leave once they were grown.

The narrative flashes back to when young Bruce Bechdel was stationed in Europe. Helen (Alison's mother) flies there to marry him. They live in West Germany until Bruce's father (Alison's paternal grandfather) has a heart attack. Bechdel's parents, who are expecting their first child, return to Pennsylvania to take over the family funeral home business. Helen gives birth to Alison and then Christian one year later, and Bruce begins teaching English at the local high school. Soon thereafter, Alison's youngest brother, John, is born.

Young Alison sees a connection between her own family and the Addams family, whom she reads about in cartoons. Having a family funeral home business casts a pervasive aura of gloom over Alison's existence; she also compares her appearance to Wednesday Addams's. However, Alison explains, spending time in the "Fun Home" also helps the Bechdel children develop an insensitivity to death. Although it is sometimes creepy to be there at night, the Bechdel kids often sleep over with their paternal grandmother, who lives in front of the funeral home building. Their grandmother likes to tell Alison, Christian, and Jobhn a bedtime story about how when Bruce was a little boy, he got caught in the mud on the family farm. Mort Dehaas, the mailman, found him and had to yank him free. Once he finally came home, Bruce's mother put him in the "oven," or an old-fashioned cook-stove, to warm him up again (42).

One day, Bruce calls a teenage Alison into the embalming room while he is preparing a naked male cadaver. She wonders if her father is testing her; she doesn't react to the dead body. Bechdel speculates that her early ability to suppress fear in the face of death led to her lack of emotion upon hearing about her father's death years later. In fact, Bechdel continues, she found herself smiling instead of crying when she returned home from college after receiving news of Bruce's death. She writes that she found his demise to be incomprehensible in part because of his profession as an undertaker. She admits that when she viewed her father's body with her brothers and visited his grave for years afterward, she felt no real emotion except for annoyance.


There is a great deal of phallic imagery throughout this chapter. Bruce Bechdel's tombstone is an obelisk, a shape he loved. He even collects obelisks before his death, and this strange hobby comes to symbolize his pursuit of teenage boys. In Bechdel's drawings of Bruce calling young Alison into the embalming room, she highlights the cadaver's penis by rendering it in extreme detail. Although such a raw image of the male sexual organ might surprise the reader, Alison does not flinch. Young Alison's indifference eventually comes to parallel Bruce Bechdel's latent homosexuality - a part of himself that he suppressed. Later, his daughter learns to suppress her emotional reaction to his death. 

One piece of evidence that leads Alison Bechdel to believe that her father committed suicide is the copy of Camus's A Happy Death that he was reading at the time of his death. The French philosopher's first novel is about deliberately creating one's own happiness in life even as the protagonist is dying from consumption. Bechdel frequently refers to A Happy Death throughout Fun Home, creating parallels between her family and Camus's story. Here, Bechdel pulls a particular passage from A Happy Death: "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" and describes it as "a fitting epitaph" for her parents' marriage (28). This means that even though Bruce Bechdel's calculated self-deception was advantageous to Helen in that it gave her children and security, her loveless marriage ended up breaking her heart. 

Bechdel compares her father's physical appearance to Camus's and uses Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus to describe the way she coped with her father's death. She writes that she grinned widely when she came home from college after learning that her father had died. She realizes that her reaction is absurd; but Camus believed that suicide itself is absurd. However, while Camus wrote that all human beings live as if we don't know we are approaching death, Bruce Bechdel's job as a mortician meant that he experienced death on a daily basis.

Bechdel reveals the "clues" surrounding her father's suicide using recurring images of words on a page, thus creating a connection between her father and the writers that she frequently cites. Many of the drawings in Fun Home contain written words, either in a book, a letter, a newspaper, or in the author's childhood diary. In this chapter, Bechdel uses the newspaper headline to reveal the way in which her father died suddenly: he was hit by a truck. She draws pictures of a page in Camus's "A Happy Death" and of her father's suspicious marginal note on an encyclopedic entry about the Towhee bird. 

Furthermore, Bechdel places her drawings in such a way to further underline a connection between Father and Camus. Drawings of her father's typed letters to her while she was away at college appear opposite drawings of Bruce reading a newspaper headline about Camus's death and a drawing of an excerpt from The Myth of Sisyphus. This encourages a visual connection between the two men. Additionally, Bechdel shows how the written word can help an individual deal with his or her individual struggles; just as Bruce Bechdel turned to Camus - his daughter's memoir is her way of expressing her feelings about his death, especially since she makes it clear that she could not bring herself to mourn in the "expected" way.