Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “A Death in the Family”

I hope you haven’t found the previous stops in my Night GalleryRe-Framing Efforts” too unnerving … because our next sojourn in this shadowy world takes place at a funeral home. Get ready to meet Jared Soames, played by legendary actor E.G. Marshall. He’s probably the most compassionate undertaker you’ll ever meet.

He’s also the weirdest. Because if a particular corpse strikes his fancy, he won’t give it a dignified burial. He’ll bury a weighted coffin and adopt the dearly departed into the “family” of corpses that he keeps in the basement, all carefully arranged in a birthday-party tableau. (Spoilers ahead, naturally, so if you’d rather see the Gallery version first, check it out on DVD before reading further.)

We see Soames in the beginning as he takes possession of a charity burial. He’s disturbed by the cavalier attitude of the ambulance drivers, who turn over the body of one Simon Cottner with all the decorum of an Amazon package. Where, he asks earnestly, are the flowers, the music, and the mourners? They look at him like he’s crazy. Simon had no friends, one of them tells him. There’s no one to miss “the stiff,” as they call him more than once.

And they don’t seem all that broken up about it. To them, it’s just a job. But to Soames, this is a mission.

As he tells his latest charge after they’ve left: “Simon, old man. You lived 81 years. You deserve more than a $100 funeral. But don’t you worry. You shall have more. Much more.”

Sometime after Simon is lowered into the ground — or at least a coffin that supposedly contains his body is — we see Soames driving along a rain-soaked street at night. The police have a roadblock up, and they’re checking all cars for an escaped convict who is said to have been wounded badly by a gas-station attendant he tried to rob.

Switch to the funeral home, where we hear but don’t see Soames at first. He’s singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” to … someone. He leaves the room for something, only to encounter the convict, a young man named Doran (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.), who’s broken in a window and is holding a gun on him.

Who’s he singing to? Doran asks. He investigates for himself, and comes across Simon Cottner, seated … er, stiffly at the dining-room table. Soames explains — very calmly; this guy doesn’t seem the least bit rattled, even with a gun pointed at him — exactly who Simon is and how he was supposed to be buried. “But I have other plans” for Simon, he explains.

Doran takes this in a sort of “that figures” kind of air, and admits that a funeral home is pretty close to what he needs (foreshadowing!). He’s soaking wet, bleeding, and desperate for Soames to give him some dry clothes and a car to escape in. But Soames urges him to stay and rest. He gets him settled in his parlor, speaks gently to him, covers him with a blanket, and goes to make him some tea.

Doran sleeps, then awakens later with a start. He goes looking for Soames. The dining room is empty. But then he hears “For he’s a jolly good fellow” again, and follows the sound down to the basement, where he pushes open a door … and meets “the family.”

Each corpse … er, member is introduced individually by a smiling Soames and everyone is in party hats. His wife … children … mother … brother … “and this,” he says, gesturing to Simon, “is my father, who just arrived tonight.” He tries to persuade Doran to stay in this place where there is only “love and peace,” but Doran, not surprisingly, is having none of it.

The doorbell rings. Soames goes to get it, telling Doran it’s probably the police and that he should just hide himself until they leave. But Doran is determined to flee, telling Soames to get out of his way, and is waving his gun around.

We cut to the officers outside, who hear shots and shoot their way in the front door. They follow the trail of blood Doran left behind earlier to the basement, where we find Doran dead in a chair, and Soames — who’s now mortally wounded himself, smilingly introducing the officers to his family … before slumping in a chair and expiring. They back away and … fade to black.

Now let’s take a look at the original short story by Miriam Allen DeFord, an American writer of sci-fi and mystery tales. “A Death in the Family” was published a decade earlier, in 1961. She lived, by the way, until 1975, so she was still alive when her story was adapted for Night Gallery. I don’t know what her reaction to it was, assuming she even watched it, but if she did, she would have seen some key differences.

In DeFord’s story, our protagonist is named Jared Sloane, and based on her description of the man, it’s easy to picture E.G. Marshall. We discover his “family” much sooner; the story opens as he’s wrapping up his workday, and heading down to the basement room where the members are all embalmed and posed.

But there’s no singing, and no party decorations. Everyone — frozen in place, of course — is merely enjoying a simple night at home, with his “mother” fixing a sock, “Grandma” taking a nap, Brother and Sister playing cards, his “wife” playing the piano, and his “son” playing with a model ship.

And every night he just hangs out after work, chatting with all of them, then saying good night and going up to bed.

All that’s missing, to him, is a daughter. And that’s what drives the action of the story. Because the Jared of DeFord’s story has patiently looked for just the right people to populate his little family, then pulled the old switcheroo, so he could adopt them for himself. The Jared of Serling’s story has obviously collected a family, yes, but there’s a distinct emphasis on his concern for the downtrodden, the neglected, the forgotten. You get the impression he’d take in anyone that his heart went out to.

There’s none of that in DeFord’s story. Her Jared is on a mission to build a very specific family, and that’s it. So here, as he did so often in his career, we see Serling putting some real heart in a story. There’s no convict, for example, in DeFord’s story; that was entirely a creation of Serling’s.

Instead, in her telling, we have a scene where one night a bundle is left on Jared’s doorstep. But it’s not a live baby. It’s a dead girl of about eight or nine — someone that he recognizes is the victim in an infamous kidnapping case that’s been all over the news. Apparently she died in their charge, and they decided to make their flight easier by leaving the body on the steps of a funeral home.

And wouldn’t you know it? She’s just the right age and look to be Jared’s “daughter.” So he takes her in, dresses her up, etc. And then, soon enough, comes the knock on the door. The police are looking for her. It seems they caught the kidnappers, and they confessed to leaving the body at a funeral home — and they remember the name “Sloane” was on it.

The resulting conversation should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins spar in “Psycho.” At first, Jared is friendly and cooperative, then — as they press him and ask to search the premises — peevish and defensive.

He insists they need a warrant. They leave to get one, saying they’ll be back in an hour, and he’d better not attempt to remove the body. So he figures the jig is up. He goes down to the “family,” turns on all the gas jets, kisses his “wife” of 10 years goodbye, and sits down to wait. And then … he strikes a match. The end.

But for my money, Serling’s most enduring contribution isn’t making it less explosive, shall we say. It’s what I mentioned earlier: the heart. Doran (again, Serling’s creation) wants to know why Soames is being nice to him. When Soames finds out that Doran has no family, he relates his own upbringing in an orphanage.

As Doran ponders the lengthy prison sentence he’s sure to get for “murder one,” he says, “Until tonight, the only hand I ever got was the back of it. That, and a kick in the pants, and a taste of the sidewalk. It’s a funny thing. I gotta wait until the lights are half out, and I’ve got one foot in hell, and I crawl on my hands and my knees to a dead house to find somebody. Somebody living. Somebody warm.” And Marshall, as Soames, is listening to this with tears in his eyes, telling him to just rest.

Well, that’s all Serling — who demonstrates once again that he’s truly a “jolly good fellow.”

Between his writing, Marshall’s acting, and Jeannot Szwarc’s direction (Serling’s favorite ever since he saw Szwarc’s work on “Class of ’99”), we have every ingredient necessary to make a true Night Gallery classic.

***

You can read DeFord’s story in the anthology “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories that Scared Even Me.” It’s out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon and other booksellers.

Previous “Re-Framing” posts can be found here. And be sure to check out this spotlight on my favorite scene in “A Death in the Family” by clicking here.

For a daily dose of Serling, you can follow me on TwitterFacebook or Pinterest. You can also get email notifications of future posts by entering your address under “Follow S&S Via Email” on the upper left-hand side of this post.

Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 07/18/2022, in Night Gallery and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Carl Rosenberg

    I haven’t read De Ford’s story, but I like this Night Gallery segment. Underneath the extreme creepiness and morbidity, there is something poignant, even tragic, in the undertaker’s speech near the end, in which he extols the macabre tableaux he created as a refuge from the coldness and lovelessness of the world of the living outside. At the end, however, there is a more sinister note. The convict by this time seemed desperate to escape the mortuary, even at the price of a lifetime in jail. However, the undertaker, as I recall, said to him, “Your place is here,” and seemed wiling to pressure or even force him, if necessary, to join his “family.” (Or maybe I’m not recalling it correctly.)

    • I agree — there is a clear undercurrent like you describe. In fact, if you check out the short post I link to at the end, you’ll see me making this very point by focusing one scene in particular.

      As for Jared being forceful, it’s not exactly like that. It’s not the vibe I get anyway. He never stopped sounding like he genuinely cared for his welfare — but obviously it’s a fine line to walk. Check it out again and see.

      • Carl Rosenberg

        You may be right, Paul–I’ll have to watch it again. It’s a powerful segment in any case. When you think about it, the real subject is not death, but the loneliness and isolation of modern life, the way both the undertaker and the convict have been affected by it, and the way the undertaker tries to resist it, as in his encounter with the cynical workers from the burial society. “As for Jared being forceful, it’s not exactly like that. It’s not the vibe I get anyway. He never stopped sounding like he genuinely cared for his welfare — but obviously it’s a fine line to walk.”

      • Obviously Serling was writing this script many years before our own experience with the loneliness and isolation of modern life, but I’m struck (yet again) by how applicable something he wrote long ago is to our life today. If anything, it feels more relevant. Remarkable.

  2. Howard Manheimer

    Paul, this sounds like a winning episode. The faves I recall are Lindemann’s Catch, A Miracle At Camafeo, Camera Obscura.

  3. I have a vague memory of seeing this episode eons ago. I’ll have to catch again sometime as it looks interesting.

  4. I remember watching this when I was bingeing Night Galllery. I did feel the heart in story, but I had no way to know Serling had added it. I like these re-frame posts, Paul. It’s amazing that after all these years, I’m still learning about Rod Serling and still being happily surprised.

    • Glad you’re enjoying them, Dan. I know I get a kick out of doing them. Each one makes me respect his talent all the more, which is really saying something. Digging into his writing has been more rewarding than I would have guessed.

      • Excellent write-up! This is one of my favorite “Night Gallery” episodes. I also thought Desi Arnaz Jr. also did a fine job as the convict. I didn’t realize this was reframed. I have to pay more attention to credits! I’d love to read the original story.

        Soames and his reasoning gave me “Arsenic and Old Lace” vibes. He didn’t kill at random, he found specific targets in the lost, unloved, and lonely people. The Arsenic aunties did the same, but they sped the dying process along with poison.
        And weren’t even as compassionate in their disposal of the bodies.

        Soames didn’t kill at all from what we see. Or am I misremembering? It seems he took in the corpses of John and Jane Does, or those he learned had no family or support. He just had a macabre way of handling their bodies to create his “family.”

        If you search 🔍 special embalming techniques online you’ll see unbelievable photos, people who treat their loved ones in the same manner as Soames for their viewings / wakes. Putting them on full display as if they were still alive engaging in their favorite pastimes. They look like wax museum figures. It’s bizarre, and unnerving, and incites morbid fascination in the spectators. I just hope the subjects consented to it before they died.

      • Thanks, LG! This was fun to do.

        I agree about Arnaz. Sure, he’s not some AMAZING thespian, but I felt he did a nice job as the young convict. I don’t get the shade that gets thrown his way by some fans. Someone who seemed more hard-bitten wouldn’t be right for the part. He’s supposed to be young and scared, and that’s just how he comes off.

        And you’re right about the “Arsenic and Old Lace” vibes. At least he didn’t speed the process along, as you say. He populated his family strictly with those who were already dead — and even then, only with those who were delivered to his funeral home. He didn’t go out looking for them. So in his own sad but twisted way, he probably felt it was some sort of destiny.

        As for those embalming techniques, whew, that does sound bizarre. I get that people don’t want to say goodbye, and that this could be viewed as a sort of tribute, but still. They’re not mannequins! They’re human beings, and they deserve a dignified resting place. I’m sure the surviving relatives mean well, but I know *I* wouldn’t want to be on display. Ha, makes me think of the “Happy Glades” resting place in Twilight Zone’s “Elegy.” Remember that?

      • I agree with you about the embalming. It does turn them into Mannequins. Glad they get buried after the event is over.

        Oh yes!! Elegy was one of those episodes i didn’t remember from my childhood viewings of TZ. I think it was one they would put on at 4 am during the marathons so i wasn’t awake to see it. lol. If they added it to the rotation at all. It was awesome and creepy. A planet of the dead in a way. I need to see it again.

  5. Quite the unnerving and creepy episode! Nice write-up, Paul—I love all the “rest of the story” background!

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