Patrick and Nora lie buried in the Catholic cemetery in Lake City, Minnesota in the shadow of an imposing pillar bearing the legend McInerny. Their individual stones read “Our Father” and “Our Mother.” My great-great grandparents. We stopped there a few weeks ago on our way to Minneapolis and Connie tolerated my bout of Celtic melancholy and the ruminations that come so easily when one reflects on how unlikely it is that one even made it into this vale of tears.
In the movie, playing the piano with abandon, Chico looks helplessly up at Groucho and says, “I can’t think of the ending.” Groucho mutters, “I can’t think of anything else.” There are contexts where anyone could say as much, and a cemetery is one of them.
Edmund Fussell, in his book The Catholic Side of Henry James, has a penetrating analysis of “The Altar of the Dead,” in which the Master’s ambivalence about the state of the departed and of the relation of the living to them is rolled like new wine on the critical tongue. Has it become Catholic to commemorate the dead? Is it dying out even among Catholics?
When David Copperfield looks out his little window at the graveyard where his father is buried and where eventually his mother too will lie, he has long thoughts, but they are difficult to characterize. Perhaps for most of us, the significance of the death of others lies in the loss to the living. “It is the fate man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.” From time to time it is the presence of his parents that David is at least fleetingly aware of but I don’t think Dickens ever considers having David pray for his mother and father.
It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead. One of the way stations to despair, when faith begins to fade, is a frantic interest in getting in touch with “the other side.” Arthur Conan Doyle and other members of the British Psychic Research Society wasted time and treasure trying to get a response to their table tapping. I think it was C. S. Lewis who commented on the banality of the messages allegedly received at séances. Better read the Purgatorio. And pray for the dead.
Another sign of weakening faith is waffling over eternal punishment. Theologians of repute have wondered if God could really… well, I mean, our God, who is so nice, condemn to eternal punishment… The voice trails away. Universal salvation is in the air. Eventually, we will all walk into the light. Hell is out. Sure it is. Dogma aside, would you lead your life differently if your ultimate condition did not depend on the decisions and choices you make? Of course you would. Is it an option of the Christian life to live like a pagan and yet end up playing a harp like everyone else? Hell is part of the package, unless we are inventing our own religion. But of course heaven and purgatory are as well. The blessed do not need our prayers, but those still scaling the seven storey mountain do. Unlike Dante, we don’t know who is where, except in the case of canonized saints — and our mothers — and it would be presumptuous to speculate.
The other day I met an Irishman whose father had died when he was a child. A consolation of his recovered faith is that one day he will be reunited with his father. A worthy thought. The communion of saints. Even of Irishmen.
Lake Pepin is a bulge in the Mississippi and Lake City sits on the western shore of it. The Catholic cemetery is on the west side of the town. Nora came up river from Louisville with the family whose maid she was and Patrick followed her back and wooed and won her and brought her home. They have lain there now for more than a century, gone into that bourn from which no traveler returns. And in this unimaginable to them present I stand, thinking of the suite of souls that issued from their love, all of them destined for eternal life. Requiescant in pace. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.
This column originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.