In churches over the holidays, we often hear this prayer:
“Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are for ever one.”
It’s so beautiful. And so evocative, even of pre-Christian themes. I think of Gilgamesh, in his futile quest for eternal life, crossing the Waters of Death to speak with Utnapishtim, who had survived the Great Flood and been granted immortality. I think of Virgil’s Aeneas crossing the Acheron with the Sibyl to meet the spirit of Anchises, his father, in the Blessed Grove. There they are, I imagine as I listen to the prayer, all those loved ones who have passed away, rejoicing with Anchises and all the others in the grove on that distant shore. For a moment, I enjoy the happy thought.
But then my rational self kicks in. Wasn’t I just reading, in Thomas Laqueur’s new book, The Work of the Dead, that the idea of the dead being in a place went out with the Reformation, at least in mainstream protestant thought? Haven’t I previously expressed a weakness for Epicurus’ view, channeled by Lucretius, that in fact the dead do not exist? (See my note on The Swerve.)
Ah, well. It’s still a happy thought. Let them rejoice.