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In Chapter 20 of The Catcher in the Rye:

... I kept worrying that I was getting pneumonia, with all those hunks of ice in my hair, and that I was going to die. ... Then I thought about the whole bunch of them sticking me in a goddam cemetery and all, with my name on this tombstone and all. Surrounded by dead guys. Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody.

What does Holden mean by "fix you up"? And, who is he talking about when he says "they?

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To fix up idiomatically means to improve or repair. From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary entry for fix up:

transitive verb
1: refurbish
fix up the attic

Holden is thinking about how undertakers fix up or refurbish corpses. Specifically, they perform cosmetic repairs to any damage to the corpse's facial features from injuries that might have been the cause of death; dress the corpse up in formal clothes; style the corpse's hair; and apply makeup to make the deceased look as good as possible.

Holden sees this as another example of the hypocrisy that finds all-pervading in the universe. According to our hero, everything and everybody in the world is "phony", and the general practice of fixing up a corpse to look good when it is, after all, dead is part of this lack of authenticity. For Holden, fixing up a corpse to mask incipient decay shows how in this phony world, appearance matters more than reality.

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Taking the paragraph as a whole, Holden is fixated not on embalming practices, but on the location where the dead are placed, i.e. a cemetery. He doesn't like the idea of being "surrounded by dead guys", or of people bringing him flowers. Given this context, I take him to mean that the dead are "fixed up" with a grave in the midst of other graves. (This is Merriam-Webster definition 3: "to provide with something needed or wanted".)

There is a good deal of sarcasm in the remark. "Oh, put me in the middle of a bunch of other corpses and decorate me with a fancy tombstone. That's great. That's exactly what I need."

"They" refers to people in general, or society.

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  • I upvoted as this seems to be a more accurate interpretation as the narrator's theme is more the provision of a grave.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 20, 2023 at 8:55
  • Why would Holden say really, though, if what he meant was "society gives you a grave when you die"? "They really provide you with a grave" doesn't seem to make much sense.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 21, 2023 at 5:46
  • @varbose: "Grave" doesn't refer only to the physical hole in the ground, but all the trouble that people go through to give the dead a nice final resting place. "They really fix you up" = "They really go to great lengths to make things nice for your corpse (even though it doesn't matter in the slightest, because you're dead)". Cemeteries are, in other words, "phony". So my answer is really not that far from yours; I just don't see any evidence in the text that the specific idea of embalming practices ever crossed Holden's mind.
    – MJ713
    Commented Apr 13, 2023 at 19:22
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As another possibility, Holden could have been using "fix" in the more negative sense of being stuck, most often seen in the phrase of "in a fix" (and being a bit closer to the root etymology). It would contrast nicely to his desire to be dumped in the river after death, a very dynamic exit, rather than be stuck in a cemetery.

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