What happens when we die? That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do. Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell. That idea is powerful and insidious. The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature. Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be. Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them. Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery. When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.
All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death. Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb. All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything. Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical. Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again. Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell. Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar. Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.
There are many more shades and nuances, of course. We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year. Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days. Death, however, is generally a shunned topic. We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after. We have beliefs. We have hopes. We really just don’t know. We often look to literature to help us explore these topics. Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching. Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night. A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification. The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.