Study Guide

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House Death

By Emily Dickinson

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There's been a Death, in the Opposite House,
As lately as Today — (1-2)

If anything deserves a capital D, it's capital D-eath. That's the biggie, isn't it? Even though the speaker of this poem might try to downplay it, it's obviously a, well, momentous occasion. If only because of all the hoopla that comes afterwards. And notice how exact the speaker is in identifying the freshness of the news, "as lately as Today." Just remember, he was there first with the news.

Somebody flings a Mattress out —
The Children hurry by —
They wonder if It died — on that —
I used to — when a Boy — (9-12)

The intimacy and privacy of a mattress makes this act all the more shocking. It's almost as if the guts have been yanked out. And who knows what's on this mattress, as in bodily fluids and other yucky stuff. The kids skirt around it, for sure. No doubt they wonder if "It" died on that. It. It didn't take long for a person with a name and a place in the world to become just "It." The speaker admits he used to have such thoughts too when he was younger. Not anymore. Why? What does he know now that he didn't know then?

[…] the Man
Of the Appalling Trade —
To take the measure of the House (17-19)

You have to remember that this is way before anyone brought their dearly departed to the Willow Glen Funeral parlor for a nice, sterile embalming. A lot of this poem focuses in on all the tasks associated with dealing with a death, and some of those aren't so pretty. This isn't your sentimental paean to the sorrows of loss. Nor is it a philosophical exploration of the nature of existence and the afterlife. This is business as usual in a small country town. Here the undertaker is described as "the Man of the Appalling Trade" because who would willingly choose to work with death like that? In this word is pall, to suggest pallbearers, also "appalling" means to pale, suggestive of the corpse itself.

There'll be that Dark Parade —

Of Tassels — and of Coaches — soon — (20-21)

Like clockwork, the course of a death in 19th-century New England was familiar and predictable. In a place and time when the average life expectancy was under 40 years, it was good to know that there were conventions and formalities that you could count on. It might be dark, but there would still be a parade. With the tassels and coaches, there was a certain beauty and justice to how the end played out.

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