Talking to the Dead

In John Ford’s film “Young Mr. Lincoln” (Henry Fonda in the title role), there is a scene early on in which Lincoln kneels at the grave of his first love, Ann Rutledge, and talks to her pretty much as he did when she was still alive, although more freely.

Watching the film again recently got me thinking about conversations with and prayers for the dead.

Visiting a grave, laying flowers at the base of a tombstone, and even chatting with the deceased is something Christians do. There are intuitive reasons for this: belief in the everlasting human soul and the coming resurrection of the dead – with a certainty that the loved one lies interred in a kind of sleep, as the poet Dylan Thomas put it (aswoon himself on the brink of faith and the grave), they sleep “robed in the long friends/the grains beyond age,” and await the last judgment, a new and sanctified body, and eternal life. There’s plenty to talk about right there. There are some mourners who revel in regaling their dearly departed with tales of the tragedies and comedies that define the world of the living. Nobody thinks the dead have become all-knowing, and we all like a little gossip. And, too, there are those who converse with the dead simply because it makes them – the living, that is – feel better.

Abe speaks to Ann

Most of our Protestant friends, sola scriptura and sola fide, do not pray for the dead because, simply and logically by their lights, they believe in heaven and hell but not in purgatory. A dead Calvinist is either saved or damned, and nothing his co-religionists do for him here makes a whit of difference hereafter. If the damned hear us, it surely magnifies their torment.

Catholics believe differently. The sixteenth-century Council of Trent not only affirmed the existence of purgatory but also made clear that “the souls detained therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful . . .” And it’s a tradition that pre-dates the Church. Jews also pray for the dead: it’s the concept behind the Kaddish prayer and the lighting of Yahrzeit candles on the anniversary of a death and on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The basic requirement for entering purgatory is the same as it is for heaven: grace. At the particular judgment, in the blinking of an eye, we’re home free – assuming, that is, our mortal sins have been confessed and forgiven. It’s one thing to retain debts: as Jesus says (Luke 12:59), “I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” – that’s why one enters purgatory after all – but it’s another thing altogether not to get into purgatory. Sin is all but inevitable; holiness may seem unreachable; but forgiveness is possible as long as we have the courage to admit error and truly come clean.

But let’s be clear about those prayers: they’re not for the souls in hell and they’re not for the souls in heaven. Prayers for the dead are only about the souls in purgatory, which is not a place but, as John Paul II termed it, a “condition,” although Dante Alighieri depicts Purgatorio as very much a place, a terraced island-mountain somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s clear our prayers are a way of encouragement for those blessed enough to be in a state of transition into holiness – support for their ongoing purification from what amount to negative images (vices) of positive virtues. Near the top of Dante’s seven-storey mountain is a level devoted to lust, wherein the penitent is finally freed from false love, after which he enters Eden, the antechamber to heaven itself. For Dante, everything is always and everywhere about love: perverted or perfected.

Dante’s scheme of Purgatorio

And he himself must go walking through the fire – his guide, Virgil, convinces him that if he wishes to see his beloved Beatrice, awaiting him on the other side of the sacred river Lethe, he must endure purging flames, which he does. Then into that river he goes, Beatrice pulling him along:

When I was near the blessed shore I heard
“Purge me” chanted so sweetly that it
cannot be written or even remembered.
How sweet the sound.

If we properly conceive the Christian life, it may well come down to prayers said in Mass and in private for the cleansing of souls here and hereafter and to acts of charity made in service to the happy, suffering Body of Christ, living and dead: we’re pulling for them; they’re pulling for us. The saints are pulling for all of us, and they’re saints because God took them across the river even before they died. Jesus prays for us. Mary prays for us. Angels pray for us. The more you think about it, the more you realize there’s not one of us who won’t be among the blessed if we pray for the dead and understand why we do and remember how many prayers are being said for each and every one of us.

John Ford has his very Protestant Mr. Lincoln balance a stick between his forefinger and the snow-covered earth near Ann’s tombstone – if it falls one way, he’ll become a lawyer; if the other way he’ll try being a storekeeper. Film critic Derek Malcolm has written that this scene was Ford’s “way of saying that to honor the dead properly you have to fulfill the aspirations they had for you.” I’m utterly convinced that the dead we pray for are praying for us to join them, and there can be no greater aspiration than that.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.