The sky was clear, the sun hot for All Souls Day in our village in northern Spain. After Mass at midday we followed the cross and the priest to the tiny local cemetery on the edge of town. Aside from the unseasonably warm weather everything was as always within the high cemetery walls. Nov. 1 is a national holiday, so friends and family swelled our population to about 40. We squeezed ourselves in amid their families’ gleaming and tacky marble tombs.
We prayed and sang a hymn, and Don Santiago sprinkled holy water and blessed everything.
As is appropriate on these occasions, I mused on the dead, and death, and what might have become of the people laid to rest around us. Where are they now?
If atheists are right, they simply vaporized — reverted to the same nothingness they were before they were born. Believers confidently proclaim their souls are still out there, carrying on beyond the grave. If the prevalent religion is correct, everyone ends up, sooner or later, in either heaven or hell.
I considered heaven, and what reputedly goes on up there. Surely nobody believes the New Yorker-cartoon heaven, where millions of souls in white robes are sitting out eternity in the clouds, plucking on harps?
Quite by chance, later that same day, two fervent Italian monks-in-training visited our house. Heaven came up in the conversation. Giacomo said that in heaven, redeemed souls sing and pray. That’s it. Nothing else. That prospect strikes me as more hellish than heavenly — not only for me, but for the poor devils on the clouds on either side. I am no Pavarotti.
Massimo assured me that at some stage I’ll get my earthly body back, whether I want it or not. Having successfully shuffled off my grizzled, aching, wheezing, half-blind, half-deaf, 76-year-old carcass, I’d far prefer to leave it behind. “Ah,” he said, “you get your old body back, but it will be transfigured.”
“Transfigured?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
“It will be free of all imperfections and blemishes.”
I am nothing but a shambling compendium of imperfections and blemishes. Without them, nobody will recognize me. I won’t recognize myself!
Not that I expect many of my hell-raiser friends to make it to heaven. Then the inevitable thought struck: the chances of my entering Paradise are virtually nil. A life-long journalist, oft-times peddler of gratuitous scurrility concerning the famous and powerful. ... The inferno is clearly my logical destination.
So, hell. What can I expect down there? On one hand, it is portrayed as a fiery pit of moaning sinners, eternally prodded by pitchfork-wielding demons. On the other hand, if the French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre is correct, hell is merely other people. In which case, for Ohioans, hell means being condemned to live eternally in Michigan, among maniacs who drive too fast and cheer for horrible sports teams.
My cemetery reverie was interrupted by Don Santiago intoning “Amen.” We crossed ourselves and headed back to town, where a feast awaited at the local bar.
I decided there’s no point dwelling unduly on the next world. We haven’t got a clue. Better to make the most of this one while I still can. And so I did.
Patrick O’Gara, a former Blade editor, lives in Northern Spain. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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