Reading “Cerements”

In a lot of ways, the arc of Worlds’ End feels like a rather disjointed one.  Each issue pretty much stands on its own if you set aside the frame story, and while there’s a thematic connection with the series of stories told by a group of waylaid travelers (there’s definitely a bit of a Canterbury Tales vibe to the whole thing), it’s not really apparent moving through each subsequent story what the end goal is supposed to be.

In issue #55, things begin to coalesce.  The story in this issue is an echo in miniature of the storytelling conceit, as the issue’s narrator, Petrefax (a student of undertaking in Litharge, the Necropolis), recounts an episode from his studies where he had to attend a burial that involved the attendants telling stories to pass the night of the vigil.  Each story-within-the-story-within-the-story is a brief examination of people dying on their own terms: the first is about Billy Scutt, a convict who agrees to be his town’s hangman in order to delay his own execution, the second is about a time another apprentice of Lithurge (within the story being told by Petrefax) encountered Destruction and learned about how the original Necropolis ended after its inhabitants failed to provide the Endless with the appropriate funeral cerements for their sister Despair, who has died once at some point in the past (that’s a story-within-a-story-within-a-story-within-a-story), and the third is about the former master of Petrefax’s master who accidentally found the room where the cerements for the Endless are located as a girl, and presumably found it again as an old woman just before dying.  Each story focuses on a different aspect of dying well (Billy Scutt wants to die naturally instead of hanging, and he fools the local lawmen into thinking he’s still fit as an old man before dying in bed; the inhabitants of the previous Necropolis are punished for not treating their clients with dignity; the old undertaker wants to find the room she found as a child one more time), and they all come together to emphasize the lesson that Petrefax’s master Klaproth wants him to learn: that being responsible for witnessing a person’s end is a sacred duty.

Poor Petrefax. Klaproth wants him to get on with it, and then he won’t let him finish his story later. (Artwork by Shea Anton Pensa, Vince Locke, and Daniel Vozzo)

If we spin that concept out into the larger storytelling motif, it seems that Gaiman’s making some kind of commentary on the importance of stories ending in a way that’s meaningful for their characters (I realize this seems like an absurdly obvious statement, but bear with me for a second).  Petrefax’s story about his trip to the burial is important to this observation because it doesn’t end properly.  After concluding the summary of events, Petrefax moves into a monologue that seems like a rumination on what it all means, but instead of reaching a culmination, Klaproth abruptly cuts his off.  It feels like a cheat to the reader, especially after being presented with so many smaller stories packed inside this narrative that all end with closure.  Gaiman doesn’t return to Petrefax in the future, so we’re left to wonder what the significance of his story is meant to be, even as we’re trying to glean something from all the smaller details he recounts.

In the macro story of The Sandman we’ll shortly understand why Gaiman’s spent all this time playing with the notion of nested stories (most of the issues in the Worlds’ End arc feature at least one story within the story being told inside the inn) and why he’s chosen to end on a story about endings (besides the structural patness of such a move), and the reveal’s going to be pretty good, but that has to wait until the next issue, which is entirely about what’s happening at the Worlds’ End.

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