Time, I eventually figured out, was a critical factor. Centuries could pass, and you might sit there in Purgatory, shuffling from one depressing room to another, and watching as your great-great-grandchildren are born, grow up, die, and through some fluke of good luck, go straight to Heaven. By then, of course, no one would be praying for you anymore, because there would be nobody left alive who had the slightest idea that you ever existed. And then what? It would be like a baseball player from the nineteenth century hoping to get into the Hall of Fame. Your only chance hinged on the tenuous possibility that the Old-Timers’ Committee would vote you into Heaven.
For me, this was where the whole concept collapsed under its own weight. There were too many of those unfathomable questions.
For example, if you were in the habit of beseeching God to promote some poor soul to Heaven, how would you know when it happened? You could waste years praying for someone who was already living it up with the angels. Meanwhile, your cousin — the one who was “a hundred percent sure” that the convenience store around the corner didn’t have a security camera — has been wasting away in Purgatory since 1983. And he’s allergic to dust.
Also, if you died with unabsolved sins on your soul, shouldn’t there be a way for you to make amends, some active role you could take in your own rehabilitation? Why must you rely on the requests of others? What if you’d converted to Catholicism, and all of your family and friends are Jewish, or Hindu? Or what if you just weren’t very popular? In that case, you’d better make yourself comfortable and get used to incomplete jigsaw puzzles, because you’re not going anywhere.
Which brings us back to this belief that there’s really somewhere to go.
People die every day. One minute they’re playing tennis and feeding the parakeet and planning a trip to the hardware store, and the next minute they’re slumped over and not breathing. It’s upsetting, and even traumatic. But where did this notion come from that part of the person has survived the transition and simply traveled to a new location?
Our inability to accept death, as well as our apparent need to fantasize about it, is almost entirely restricted to humans. We look around and see all kinds of things dropping dead – trees, giraffes, small animals that failed to recognize a recreational vehicle as a danger — and we never wonder where they are now. We don’t say, “This crumbling bark and these brittle branches are what remains of the old hickory’s physical body, but its spirit is in a better place.” Instead, we talk about the cycle of life, a theory that we happily apply to everything but ourselves.
I remember the day our teacher informed us that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls. We were devastated. My cat had recently died. At least I was almost sure it had died. She went out one day and never came back. My mother said she had probably gone to live with another family, but we knew most of the families in the neighborhood. Unless the cat had hopped onto the Number 7 bus and taken off for Riverdale, she was most likely dead.
Why couldn’t animals get into Heaven? If we were all going to be deliriously happy up there, wouldn’t we be that much more delirious if we had our pets with us? Not all pets, of course. That brown Doberman Pinscher up the street could be the devil’s watchdog for all I cared. And my godmother’s French poodle didn’t even deserve to go to Purgatory. But I don’t think my cat ever committed a single sin, which is something I can’t say about anyone else.
I’ve seen a lot of movies that try to portray the afterlife. Sometimes, if it’s late and I’m extremely tired, I find myself believing that the film I’m watching is based on reality. It seems well-researched, right down to the administrative bureaucracy that can make all three destinations so frustrating at times.
In most of these stories, someone died, usually long ago. Now, for a reason we don’t know about yet, they’re appearing before a loved one. The person who’s still alive never thinks it especially peculiar that they’re having a conversation with someone who isn’t. And if they do, they get over it quickly, and within minutes are involved in a disagreement about a car one of them sold to the other. Then, without warning, the dead person interrupts and says, “Please, you must listen to me. I don’t have much time.”
They never have much time. What’s the big rush? Do banks in the afterlife close early? I’m kind of hoping that after death, things will become a little less urgent. After all, it was probably stress that killed most of us in the first place.
In fact, I’ve already resigned myself to the idea that after I die, I’ll have nowhere to go, and the pressure will be off. But I also realize that I may have gotten it completely wrong. Fortunately, I have an appointment this afternoon with a well-dressed businessman who claims he can make me rich and give me back my youth. So I’ll have a lot more time to figure out this afterlife thing. And all he needs me to do is scratch my signature onto a blank sheet of paper.
He’s looking for referrals, by the way. Let me know if you’re interested.