As I Lay Dying chronicles the dark, comic story of a Mississippi family’s long and arduous journey to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Respecting Addie’s request to be buried in her family’s burial ground in Jefferson, Anse Bundren and his five children disregard the advice of friends and neighbors and embark on a forty-mile, nine-day trek in the wake of a devastating storm.
The story of the journey is presented by a variety of narrators: family members, friends, acquaintances, and objective onlookers. Each narrator provides a different perspective on individuals and events.
When the novel begins, Addie is on her deathbed. Outside her bedroom window, Cash slowly and meticulously builds her coffin. On the front porch, Jewel and Darl confer with their father about taking a last minute job to make a bit of money. Anse reminds his sons of his promise to their mother but agrees to let them go, even though he knows that Addie may die before they return.
When Peabody, the local doctor, is finally summoned to the Bundren home, he predicts that it will be too late to do anything for Addie. Sure enough, she dies shortly after Peabody’s arrival at the Bundren farm. After sending Dewey Dell away to prepare supper, Anse stands over his dead wife, listens to the sound of Cash’s saw as he works on the coffin, and says: “God’s will be done. Now I can get them teeth.”
Cash finishes the coffin later that night in the pouring rain. Addie is kept in the coffin for three days before Darl and Jewel return home with the wagon. On the first day, the family wakes to find that Vardaman has bored the top of the coffin full of holes-two of which bored straight through Addie’s face.
By the time the family finally gets the coffin on the wagon, the bridge to town has been washed away by heavy rains, adding several days to their journey. Jewel, refusing to travel with the family, follows some distance behind on his beloved horse.
Just before sundown they complete the first eight miles of their journey. They spend the night in a neighbor’s barn and start off again early the next morning, trying to find a bridge that hasn’t been completely destroyed by a recent storm. They finally find one near Vernon Tull’s farm.
After consideration, it is decided that Anse, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Vernon Tull will walk across the remains of the bridge and that Cash and Darl will lead the wagon across the river at the ford. Jewel crosses ahead of them on his horse. Halfway across the bridge, the wagon is hit by a floating log and is dragged off by the current. The wagon and Addie’s coffin are recovered, but the mules drown and Cash breaks his leg.
The narrative action pauses as Addie narrates a section in the novel. She describes her youth, her miserable life as a schoolteacher, and her decision to marry Anse. Unfortunately, her marriage is an unhappy one.
After giving birth to Cash, she suffered from depression; after giving birth to her second son, Darl, she makes Anse promise to bury her in Jefferson when she dies. Her revenge, she says, would be that Anse would never know that she was taking revenge. Addie also reveals her secret affair with Reverend Whitfield-a union that produced Addie’s favorite child, Jewel.
After the disastrous river crossing, the Bundrens spend the night at Armstid’s farm. In the morning, Anse rides off on Jewel’s horse to purchase a team of mules. During his absence, the heat intensifies the already putrid stench of Addie’s corpse. Outraged, Lula Armstid thinks Anse “should be lawed for treating [Addie] so.”
When Anse finally returns, he announces that he has traded Jewel’s horse for a team of mules. The family’s journey resumes the next morning with Cash lying on a pallet placed atop Addie’s coffin.
Like Anse, Dewey Dell has personal reasons for wanting to go to town. She is pregnant and her boyfriend, Lafe, has told her that she would be able to “get something at the drugstore” to induce an abortion. When the procession passes through the town of Mottson, Dewey Dell speaks to the druggist but is told that she will not get what she wants in his store.
Meanwhile, Darl buys cement for Cash’s leg at a hardware store. Anse, waiting outside in the wagon, is told by the town marshal that he will have to leave town. After eight days in the stifling heat, Addie’s body is endangering the public health.
The family leaves town, stopping briefly to apply fresh cement on Cash’s broken leg. Jewel, who disappeared after Anse traded his horse, reappears and rejoins the family.
They spend the last night of their journey on a farm belonging to Mr. Gillespie. During the night, Darl sets fire to the barn and Jewel’s back is burned rescuing the coffin from the flames.
When Gillespie discovers that it was Darl who set the fire, he threatens to sue unless Darl is committed to the mental institution in Jackson. Cash thinks that Darl “done right in a way,” trying to get Addie “outen our hands,” but decides that it does not excuse setting fire to a man’s barn and endangering his property.
As they arrive in Jefferson the next day, Anse finally concedes that they will have to find a doctor for Cash’s infected leg. But first, they bury Addie. Anse borrows a couple of spades on the way to the cemetery and-nine days after Addie’s death-finally lays his wife to rest in her family plot. As they leave the cemetery, Darl is jumped by Dewey Dell and Jewel and handed over to the men waiting to take him to the mental institution in Jackson.
When Cash finally gets to the doctor, Peabody cannot believe that Anse treated his son’s broken leg with raw cement. Shocked at the damage they have done to him, the doctor wonders why Anse simply didn’t bring Cash to the nearest sawmill and stick his leg in the saw.
Meanwhile, Dewey Dell finds another drugstore. After requesting something that will terminate her pregnancy, she is given a box of useless capsules by the drugstore clerk. The deceitful clerk proceeds to seduce her. The next morning, Anse disappears only to reappear with a new set of teeth and a new Mrs. Bundren-a local woman who loaned him the tools to bury Addie.