There's a recess in a trial at the Petersburg Law Courts.
A trio of court men – Ivan Egorovich Shebek, Fedor Vasilievich, and Peter Ivanovich – are gathered for a friendly chat in Shebek's room during the break.
Peter Ivanovich notices in the Gazette that a certain Ivan Ilych has died, and says this to the others.
The paper contains an announcement of his funeral from his widow, Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina. (Important setting info: Ivan's date of death is February 4, 1882).
Ivan Ilych, the narrator tells us, was a colleague and friend of the three fellows, and well liked by all of them.
In fact they liked him so well that they instantly react to his death by thinking about what promotions might result from it.
Promotions mulled over, Peter Ivanovich starts up a heartfelt conversation about the deceased.
Apparently Ivan had suffered for some time from a mysterious disease. The doctors couldn't agree on what it was.
Joking about the great difficulties in actually making a visit to Ivan's family (the house is in another part of the city. How could they possibly be expected to visit?), the three men go back to court.
The narrator tells us that, promotions aside, everyone's first reaction to Ivan's death is: "at least it wasn't me."
Their second thought is of what a bummer it will be to have to sit through the boring funeral service and see Ivan's widow.
Anyway, after the court session, Peter Ivanovich goes home and tells his wife over dinner that his dear friend Ivan has died and that he must pay his family a visit.
He also tells her there might be a promotion for a relative in the works.
Peter Ivanovich goes by carriage to Ivan's home, after donning elegant eveningwear.
Near the entrance, he finds Schwartz, another friend and colleague. What Schwartz really wants to do, Peter Ivanovich can tell, is arrange a bridge game for the evening. "Why let this dreary funeral business get you down?" seems to be his attitude.
Peter Ivanovich goes upstairs to the room where Ivan's body is laid out.
He doesn't know quite what he's supposed to do in these circumstances but is sure he's got to do something, so he figures he might as well cross himself a few times for good measure and make something resembling a bow.
Having shown his respect, Peter Ivanovich approaches Ivan's corpse and has a look at it.
It's pretty dead looking, and wasted away by sickness.
Still, Peter thinks Ivan's face shows that "what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly" (1.27). It has a certain dignity.
It's not too long before looking at the corpse makes Peter Ivanovich very uncomfortable, and he quickly leaves the room (after crossing himself again).
Fortunately Peter runs into the contagiously good-humored Schwartz, who perks him up and tries to make arrangements for the bridge game.
Somewhat less luckily, Praskovya Fedorovna – Ivan's unattractive and arched-eye-browed widow – interrupts them by announcing that it's time for the service.
She recognizes Peter Ivanovich and asks him to come with her to another room to talk before the service begins.
Praskovya Fedorovna wants to show everyone how sad she is, but she just comes across as being fake.
Peter Ivanovich also tries to pretend to be compassionate.
They are both gratified by this, and arrive together at the drawing room.
Praskovya Fedorovna confides tragically to Peter Ivanovich that Ivan Ilych suffered terribly in his last days.
This fills Peter with horror: he'd known Ivan most of his life, and for the first time it really hits him that Ivan could just as well be…him. (Gulp.)
He's even startled enough to forget his disgust at how obviously he and Praskovya Fedorovna are faking all of their feelings.
Peter Ivanovich gets over the horror once Praskovya Fedorovna starts describing Ivan's suffering in more detail.
This was Ivan, not me, he convincingly reassures himself. He can't see something awful like this happening to him.
Just for good measure, Praskovya Fedorovna again bemoans how hard it all is and bursts into tears.
After some more comforting from Peter she quickly dries up and moves on to what she really wants to talk about: how she can milk more money from the government now that she's a widow.
Praskovya Fedorovna has evidently researched this question very carefully already, and Peter Ivanovich doesn't have anything new to add. She quickly loses interest in him.
The discarded Peter leaves the drawing room and returns to the room with the corpse, passing Ivan Ilych's angry-looking daughter (with her equally angry-looking fiancé) and young son on the way.
The service takes place: "candles, groans, incense, tears, and sobs" (1.46).
Peter Ivanovich makes sure not to let the service get him down and leaves as soon as the dreadful affair is over.