Facing Death in ‘Pet Sematary’

Some time ago while I lay on the couch, a wave of thought came over me – What is the nature of death? Our own existence is what we’ve known since birth and contemplating the end of existence feels like a foreign invader. The idea that all of this will cease struck me, it struck me to the core. I felt hollow inside and numb. I lay there for almost an hour, still, staring up at the popcorn ceiling. Boy, was that a horrible feeling. There’s nothing productive about those kinds of thoughts and I haven’t delved back in since, but I did come to one truth: Death is scary and it’s assured.

Pet Sematary deals with this very topic. The main character, Louis Creed, faces it at every turn throughout the novel. A general physician working at the University, Creed believes death is the natural order of things. However, when his neighbor, Jud, takes Louis and his family out to the pet cemetery behind their house, his journey with death begins. It feels only natural that a story about cemeteries would deal quite heavily with the topic of death, and King provides. Death is the central figure in the entire story if not the main antagonist.

Several characters have differing opinions on death. Rachel, Louis’s wife, has a horrific childhood experience with death and wants to avoid it at all cost, never talking about it especially around her child Ellie. Ellie hates the idea of her cat dying, but as the story progresses her view of death changes. She becomes more mature toward the idea of death but also more spiritual, believing Jesus can bring people back from the dead and won’t let anything bad happen.

An interesting juxtaposition in Pet Sematary is how the Creed’s cat Winston Churchill changes after undergoing a neutering operation. While Louis isn’t fond of the cat’s wild personality, he doesn’t want him wandering around and crossing the street, meeting his untimely demise to a semi-truck. Once they remove his ability to give life, the cat’s wild personality dissolves with little drive to do much of anything. Despite his efforts, Louis’s cat still dies and he immediately buries it in the pet cemetery. By some bizarre turn of events, the cat is resurrected within hours and returns to Louis’s home. After this, Louis’s cat displays even more bizarre and creepy behavior. The juxtaposition between taking away life and resurrecting life, and how that affects personalities, is clear. With every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Perhaps Lazarus “changed” after Jesus resurrected him from the dead?

While Rachel fears death because of her sister Zelda’s meningitis, she also admits to wishing her sister would die so that she could stop suffering and leave her and her parents alone. Zelda tormented them, being purposefully cruel. King proposes that death is generally the worst-case scenario but can also be a relief, letting the suffering die either for selfish or humanitarian reasons. Death puts the suffering out of their misery.

Yet, even though Louis believes death is the natural order of things and that sometimes death can put the suffering out of his misery, he refuses to let his baby son receive such a fate. When his son is run over by a truck and buried, he is tempted to exhume his body and bury him in the pet cemetery. His friend Jud warns him against this, telling him a story about the horrors of what happens when you bury a person there. Louis refuses to listen and proceeds with his plan to resurrect his child. The results are, of course, catastrophic and tragic. Just as his cat changed, his son changed into a demon child.

Making clear parallels to the story The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, the conclusion to Pet Sematary cements the original belief by Louis that death is the natural order of things and to tamper with death is only going to make things worse. Yet, there’s an obvious irony lying underneath this story pointing directly at Louis’s career as a physician. By treating people, is Louis not helping his patients stave off death? Perhaps treating the ill and resurrecting the dead are two different things, but either way, the result is the same. The hand of death is stayed for a time.

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