Remembering the Other Side

My father died exactly four years ago yesterday. It may sound like a cliché, but there literally has not been a day since that I haven’t thought about him, probably more than when he was alive. Sometimes I catch myself wanting to tell him something, before I remember that’s no longer possible. People often say that the passing of your parents really brings home the reality of death. I’ve found that to be true and many friends report the same. Being a believer puts it all in certain perspective, of course. But somehow, death that close strikes in deeper and goes down further than you thought possible, and passes beyond what we normally call sorrow.

Early November is precisely the right time of the year to remember all saints and all souls. It has the proper balance between the passing of a season of life and some kind of aching beauty in dying, which mere words never express. In several cultures, it’s the time when the two worlds become mixed and somehow a little more transparent to each other. In Mexico, families even have picnics in graveyards so that those who are gone and those still here can celebrate again together. It’s too bad that, here in America, all that we might recall in this season has become the barest vestige in Halloween costumes and candy.

I saw a film recently, however, that touches a slightly deeper chord. It’s called “Hereafter” and tells the story of a tough French woman reporter who “dies” briefly after being drowned in the tsunami that hit Indonesia a few years ago. While she’s au-delà, she has an after-death experience like the ones often reported: bright lights, a feeling of deep happiness, the presence of others. Back in Paris, she can’t get interested again in the usual political brawling. Her producer – and boyfriend – tells her she’s had a concussion, and should take some time off to write a book. Asked casually what he thinks there is after death, he says that the lights simply go out and there’s perpetual darkness. Period.

She takes a book idea to a French publisher: a hard-hitting exposé of former French president François Mitterand and his affairs, shady financial dealings, and political manipulations. They love the concept. But when she comes back a few months later – after consulting with a hospice doctor and others close to the subject – with several chapters of a book about life after death, the publishers think she’s crazy. A book like this is not for a French audience, they say. It could only come out from “an American or British publishing house.”

Clint Eastwood on the set of “Hereafter”

“Hereafter” was directed by Clint Eastwood, who seems to have gotten religion in his last few films, despite some troubling moral problems in them all. The line about American and British publishers is just one of the gentle ways that this film pokes fun at the close-mindedness in our politics and intellectual life. “Why are you all so afraid of talking about this?” – the young woman asks. It’s a good question, for several reasons.

Because there is pain – and fear – as well as consolation in this contact with the other world.  Two stories run parallel to hers in the film. The American actor Matt Damon plays a young man in San Francisco with the ability to talk with the dead. He stopped doing so, however, despite the fact that lots of people in pain came to him for relief, because it was tearing up his life and theirs. Eastwood does not, as many directors might, make this ability the center of the story. In fact, he plays it down as just the kind of spiritual gift certain people of great modesty might have. All the other people who claim such powers in the film are simple frauds.

After a painful episode when he puts a young woman in touch with her abusive father, Damon flees San Francisco for London where he meets a young boy whose twin brother was killed in a car accident. All three stories and all three main characters finally come together in beautiful, autumnal London, where they help each other come to terms with this reality of the hereafter in ways that allow them all to go on with more or less normal lives.

This whole story is told, as I’ve said, with great sobriety, which in an odd way makes the intersection of this world and the other one seem almost matter-of-fact – and therefore more convincing. It’s almost as if Eastwood believes that once the subject has been brought up in a credible manner, others might start talking about it, too.

And in fact it seems they have, at least in popular culture. Film critics – who need to have something to write about on a regular basis – have pointed out that there are at least three films out now with otherworldly themes. It’s generally not advisable to draw too many conclusions from such facts because our popular culture is too superficial and changeable ever to be taken as indicative of some kind of substantial trend.

But as we are all drowned in the last-minute election fury today and tomorrow, it’s a good thing to have a reminder of how brief a time we have here and how insignificant, in most ways, our political tussles really are. It is not a shirking of our worldly responsibilities – as Christians are sometimes accused of doing – to remember that greater realities lie all around us. And that we will live richer lives and better meet our responsibilities, even in this world, by not losing sight of the world to come.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.