Content warning: death.
I walked into Our Lady of Consolation Church carrying the church truck, the accordion-like collapsible cart that we use to hold the casket. I couldn’t help but notice all the Advent pageantry. Red and white potted poinsettias checkered the chancel. In the rear of the church, a vintage nativity scene that had survived five or six generations of Parkesburg parishioners sat proudly, a yearly Advent fixture. The artificial evergreen Advent wreath had all four candles burning, while evergreens of the real variety snaked around the lit pew torches flanking the center aisle. Through the open door to the sacristy, I could see that Father Michael had the seasonally colored funeral pall laid on a chair, with his matching vestment hanging on an overburdened wire hanger. It was Christmas Eve, and I could smell the holiday and all the wonderful memories that accompany it.
As a funeral director, I find a certain freedom in working funerals in and around the holidays. There’s a sense that I’m “volunteering” to work on a holiday (although that may just be a coping mechanism on my part). And families are more gracious with us, knowing that we’re likely missing out on our own family events. This Christmas Eve funeral seemed particularly special because it was the funeral for a very dear friend of ours, Joan Ricci.
Joan had been the organist at Our Lady for the better part of a decade. Every time we had a funeral mass at the church—which was roughly fifteen times a year—she was there, with her warm smile and genuine love, playing the funeral mass hymns and harmonizing with the cantor.
Joan had the uncanny ability to communicate love with her presence. There was a sense of love so thick it could almost be seen and touched, and it spread. To everyone.
Joan also had breast cancer the entire time I knew her. A roller coaster of breast cancer. It would be in partial remission, and then it’d come back. At one point she was declared cancer free, but it came back again. She beat it one last time—her doctors thought it might be gone for good—until it came back with full vengeance. Joan was fifty-two when she died, leaving behind her husband and three teenage children.
After I entered the church, Pop-Pop was soon behind me, carrying a couple of flower basket stands. My grandfather, my dad’s dad, had aged quickly over the past year. A year ago he had been meeting with families, working all the funerals, answering the business phone, all at the age of eighty-two.
Both my mom and my dad came from funeral home families. I’m a sixth-generation funeral director on my dad’s side, the Wildes. And my mom grew up in the Brown Funeral Home, in the neighboring borough of Christiana, where her father was the third-generation funeral director in his family. Since my mom now works as the secretary at the Wilde Funeral Home, I’m a fifth- generation deathcare worker on my mom’s side. You could say death runs in every family, but it seems to have a special run in mine.
Following five generations of funeral directors on one side of my family and four on the other, I grew up thinking there wasn’t any other real option. Looking back, I wasn’t sure if I had ever been given the confidence to make my own decision.
I walked behind Pop-Pop, watching his slow, uneven gait, as he told me about the conversation he had with Father Michael, who he affectionally called, “Father Mick.”
“Mick said that Joan’s death was one of the most spiritual experiences he’d ever had,” Pop-Pop said as we reached the front of the church. “He was there when she died. He told me he’s been crying ever since.”
Having dropped the church truck at the back of the church, I helped Pop-Pop set up the flowers. We had arrived about thirty minutes before the pallbearers, who would help us carry the casket up the steep stone steps of Our Lady and into the sanctuary. I brought in the Reserved signs, the register book, and prayer cards, and then both Pop-Pop and I walked through the sacristy, which connected the church and the rectory.
Father was standing on the rectory’s porch, finishing off a cigarette. He flicked it into the bushes as soon as he saw us. “Don’t want to make your expensive suits stink,” he said, with an ornery grin.
I could tell he was slightly subdued. He would have normally followed that line with a deep laugh.
“You guys ready for a long day?”
“We’re set up as much as we can be,” Pop-Pop said. “The pallbearers will be here in fifteen, and we’ll bring Joan in.”
“She look good?” Father asked.
I told Father that Pop-Pop had made her look wonderful.
Not only had Pop-Pop met with Joan’s family, but he had also embalmed, dressed, and cosmetized Joan. He had invested hours into making her look the best he possibly could, and his work paid off.
“Well, I’ve had one of the most spiritual weeks I’ve ever experienced,” Father started. “I had a dream the night after Joan died. It was one of those vivid dreams that feels like it’s really happening. I saw her entering heaven and being greeted by Mary. Angels were singing as Mary led Joan to Jesus. What happened next is something I didn’t expect. Jesus sat up, walked to Joan, and greeted her—just like you and I are doing right now.”
He paused, and we waited. “After they talked for a little, Joan presented Jesus with a Christmas gift. The next part I can’t explain, but I just knew that her gift was today. It was this funeral. Joan’s gift to Jesus was everyone who comes today.”
Like many funeral directors, my grandfather and father and I have listened to innumerable stories from families who tell us their dreams and visions and signs from their deceased loved ones. Through Pop-Pop’s nearly seventy-year career, he had likely heard a thousand such stories.
And he believed nearly all of them.
I, on the other hand, don’t. Or didn’t.
My grandparents were in high school during World War II, and the default of their generation of white young people was a belief that held little space for doubts. The Nazis were bad and America was good. They didn’t easily give in to doubt. Some of these believers were fundamentalists in the truest sense: believers who had a set of certainties that always went unquestioned.
They were fundamentalist believers in their system of morals and values, which were good not merely for their own culture, but—they thought with equal parts pride and optimism—for every other culture of the world. They were fundamentalist believers in their faith, which they believed represented the pinnacle of peace and goodness and God’s love. They were fundamentalist believers in their leaders—community, religious, family, government—leaders who were never as evil as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, or Hideki Tōjō.
In that crowd of God-and-country believers, only a rare few gave space to doubt. They entertained the doubt, thought about it, and let it shape them. Yesterday’s doubters are today’s saints. Susan B. Anthony. Charles Darwin. Mahatma Gandhi. Albert Einstein. Sylvia Rivera. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. People who questioned the status quo. My generation honors them through our own skepticism.
Today’s world is very different from the world of the 1940s. Good and bad are no longer absolutes. Despite demagogues’ attempts to paint their opposition as the enemy, the line between the heroes and the villains is nowhere as clear as it was when Hitler and Stalin were systematically exterminating entire people groups. In today’s world, God is no longer a wise-looking white man sitting on a European-style throne. Even the word family is polysemous. The complexity of the world and lack of absolutes has only been reaffirmed by the lesson of the internet: humans are a diverse bunch with diverse cultures, diverse beliefs, and diverse morals. And very few of these very different people are as bad as we’ve thought.
So unlike Father Mick and my grandfather, I didn’t naturally believe Father Mick’s dream was a message sent directly from Jesus and Joan to us. When I hear the stories that families tell me of dreams and visions, I doubt. I am, however, very much like Pop-Pop in one aspect. He was a fundamentalist of belief, and I have become a fundamentalist of doubt. I believed Father Mick, in one sense. I believed he had indeed had the dream. But I also thought his dream was probably a product of wishful thinking. Father loved Joan—we all did—and that love for her and her life produced a vision where he saw everything he’d hoped for Joan: an eternity in heaven with Jesus.
Such visions, I would have said, are a coping method for the terrible reality that is death. Death is so sudden, and so final, that in order for humans to cope with mortality, they make up a place that is immortal and eternal: the afterlife.
Here’s a two-question test for you:
What if the afterlife doesn’t exist?
What if you don’t live eternally?
Okay. Test over.
How did those questions make you feel? I’d guess that they make most of us feel uneasy, especially those who believe in an afterlife. Research suggests that the number of people who believe in the afterlife has remained relatively stable over the past couple of decades. Yet voices that unapologetically refute the existence of the afterlife have grown in number.
Readers devour books like Heaven Is for Real and Ninety Minutes in Heaven not because those books provide ample and reproducible evidence for the existence of life after death but because they confirm people’s deepest wish to be free from mortality. To skeptics like me, all those books prove is that, to avoid nihilism, most people have to wear a death equivalent of sunglasses they call “heaven.”
To reinforce belief in heaven and the afterlife, many people look for any pebble of confirmation. Over the course of a couple of decades, experimental psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski developed what they call “terror management theory.” Based in the theoretical work of Ernest Becker, terror management theory starts with a few of Becker’s propositions:
- Like all biological life on earth, humans are wired to seek life and avoid death.
- Unlike other biological life, humanity’s somewhat unique creative and mental capacity makes us aware that we will die.
- Our awareness of our own mortality can be softened through cultural worldviews, such as the afterlife, that create both symbolic immortality and self-esteem.
- Belief and adherence to that cultural worldview is how we manage our death anxiety.
Terror management theory posits that when other people call into question our cultural worldviews, we move into “worldview defense.” This defense produces “vigorous agreement with and affection for those who uphold or share our beliefs (or who are similar to us) and equally vigorous hostility and disdain for those who challenge or do not share our beliefs (i.e., are different from us).”
I used to believe that terror management theory offered the only viable way to explain heaven—that is, that the afterlife was just a coping mechanism for humanity’s fear of death. And for good reason. I’ve heard hundreds of funeral services in which preachers harness the fear of death to get the funeral attendants to “accept Christ.” I’ve heard it so many times I could probably preach their message for them.
And on the day of Joan’s funeral, as I listened to Father Mick finish telling us his dream of Joan and Jesus, I wondered if this dream was nothing more than a way for him to cope with the sudden death of someone he loved. My grandfather didn’t share my doubt, however, because as soon as Father Mick was finished telling of his vision, Pop-Pop confidently told him, “God was showing you what was happening to Joan.”
But the stories I have heard during my work as a funeral director complicate my doubt. They challenge my skepticism. The families I’ve met with make me ask questions: What if our dead remain with us in some way that my Western worldview had not prepared me to see? What if the hereafter isn’t “up there”? What if the hereafter intersects with the here and now?
Perhaps all the claims that visions and dreams and connections to ancestors are “in your head”—perhaps those claims themselves are a massive oversimplification of what is actually happening. I’m a skeptic, not a misanthrope.
Some stories are even more believable than others because they happened to people who weren’t looking for them. These kinds of stories don’t just happen to religious people. And they rarely happen to people oppressed by the fear of death and grabbing for the afterlife to give them some peace. These experiences happen to people from every walk of life: to those who believe in the afterlife and to those who don’t.
As it turns out, belief is not a prerequisite for having an experience with the afterlife. After listening to so many stories, I began to wonder if they might hold some kind of truth.
This is an excerpt from All the Ways Our Dead Still Speak chapter 2: “A Dream of Heaven.”