Last year, my father-in-law died. He was a complicated, difficult, intelligent man; the obituary-ese would be 'colourful'. On occasion, when he was alive, I wanted him to go to hell. But when I sat at his deathbed, and looked at the body from which life had ebbed, I couldn't help marvelling at the longevity, persistence and garish exuberance of the concept of the afterlife. How could anyone think that his soul was now flying off to an eternal judgment? There he lay, in his frailty and banality, his body the register, the lined book, of his 79 years. The corpse was so palpable in its morbidity, so finished. But for centuries, people believed the book would be opened again. In a late 15th-century mural in Albi Cathedral, in the Midi-Pyrénées, you can see the damned writhing below in chaotic torture, while above them the saved line up in lucky order, presenting the books of their lives to the presiding angel, like anxious immigrants at a border checkpoint. And what would your book look like? My father-in-law drank too much, argued too much, did not always show loving-kindness, did little in the way of charitable works, did not go to church (he was a Frenchman, a lapsed Catholic with little formal faith), and fiercely loved and protected his small family with a patriarchal passion, clearly Mediterranean in origin and display. An ordinary sin-set; forgivable fallibilities. But in the eyes of his own Church, until quite recently, those failings condemned him either to purgatory or to eternal punishment in hell.
LRB 14 April 2011 | PDF Download