Popular culture has been brimming lately with bold conjectures about the afterlife. The matter of what follows death is one of those "middle" concerns from which many Christian theologians have kept a respectful distance, not wanting to speculate beyond a general hopefulness, and still smarting from Marx's rebuke that the promise of eternal life distracts people from demanding justice in this life. For decades popular culture concurred in this Marxist suspicion of the debilitating effects of the promise of heaven. But in the last 15 years there have been some brazen depictions of life after death in movies, novels and on television - and from studios and publishers that have no obvious stake in promoting religious beliefs.
Some of the more memorable movies that have explored the terrain, bureaucracy, and peculiar physics of heaven and hell are Made in Heaven (1987), where heaven is pictured as a cozy log cabin nestled in an alpine meadow below snowy peaks, a waystation of self-improvement before the next round of samsara; Defending Your Life (1991), where the dead go to the well-groomed health spa of Judgment City, awaiting their appearance before magistrates who examine and pass verdicts on their just completed lives; What Dreams May Come (1998), which depicts hell as a lake of fire with the damned swimming eternally in a smelly muck, while heaven is verdant meadowlands and lakes, monumental Arcadian cities, and reunions with loved ones; South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), in which hell is full of fiery wraiths, prehistoric pterodactyls, sulfurous pools and sodomy, while heaven is a celestial paradise of bare-chested, shapely angels; and Don't Tempt Me (2001), where heaven is eternally Paris in the 1930s, filmed in black and white, sparsely populated and the official language is French, while hell is an underground concentration camp in full color, throngs herded around by sadistic, uniformed Kapos, meals are served in steamy diners where the orders are always wrong, corporate titans and tinpot dictators are reassigned identities as illegal aliens, misogynist gangsters become waitresses, the famous must live lives of obscurity - and the lingua franca is English. These are much more imaginative than earlier films like Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), both of which drew on more Raphaelite visions of heaven as winged choirs of angels who with requisitioned harps are seen treading lightly on the clouds (although Cabin in the Sky did add the mouthwatering attractions of Pork Chop Orchard and Possum Pie Grove).
An alternative exploration of the afterlife is found in a string of recent movies that suggest the dead linger among the living, confined to their old "haunts" long enough to be reconciled to unfinished lives or to console the loved ones they've left behind. Beetlejuice (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), Ghost (1990), Flatliners (1990), Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Heart and Soul (1993), The Sixth Sense (1999), and Solaris (2002) all develop plots around these elements. In Flatliners, four medical students undergo temporary death under monitored conditions, defibrillators at the ready to ensure their resuscitation before their brains die, with the intention of probing with empirical precision what awaits us on the other side. In the minutes they are dead, each of them confronts accusing spirits who finger their repressed guilt - two are confronted by children they had tormented mercilessly in their own childhoods, one by a brigade of women he had seduced, and one by her father whose suicide she had blamed herself for since she was a little girl. Collectively, they learn that in the freshness of death there are sins that cry out for atonement, or, at least, long-borne guilt demanding resolution - and that there will be terrifying familiars there to lend a hand. In The Sixth Sense, a child psychologist, unaware that he has been murdered, continues his practice preoccupied with treating a troubled boy who "sees ghosts." In fact the psychologist is, without realizing it, himself a ghost, who is being given a final chance to come to terms with his unfinished life and his lingering guilt over failed efforts to cure one particularly distraught child patient many years earlier.
A more tender version of this is played out in Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply, where bohemian Nina loses her lover Jamie to a sore throat, which proves to be fatal. After his funeral, she moves to a new flat in north London hoping to resume her life, but her mourning persists until one rueful night she sits tapping on the piano her half of a duet she had perfected with Jamie on his cello, when he suddenly materializes in cold flesh to accompany her. He eases into his role as house ghost, her companion to return to at the end of each day. Nina is happy again - until Jamie makes her flat a flophouse for his ghost friends who have nowhere else to go, confirmed bachelor ghosts who spend most of their days and nights watching old movies on the television, blasting her furnace, and moving her furniture around the apartment. Meanwhile a living suitor makes a ploy for Nina's affections, and as her irritation with her ghost-crowded flat increases, the possibility of rejoining the companionship of the living takes on a new allure. Jamie, it appears, has been recruiting housemates with the intent of having just this effect - to press lovely Nina out of her grief and back into the company of warm-blooded, still breathing humanity.
Cable television has also turned loose some imaginative minds to reflect on lands of the dead that intersect with our own. Showtime's Dead Like Me features a teenager who, in the pilot episode, is killed by a toilet that falls from a disintegrating space station and is then recruited to join an elite squad of the dead charged with easing the pain of victims of lethal violence, harvesting their souls a moment before they are assailed. The afterlife here is depicted as a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and these angels of death work at a mid-management level, frequently converging at a waffle house to gripe about their working conditions and their inscrutable supervisors.
Similar themes have been appearing in popular literature. William Kennedy's 1983 novel, Ironweed,22 familiarized readers with Francis Phelan, a middle-aged drunk who, picking up a day job at a cemetery on Halloween, is haunted by a cohort of familiar ghosts who reside there, including his parents, his infant son, Gerald, who had been dropped by Francis 22 years earlier and broken his neck, and a strike-breaking scab who still wears the rock Francis impaled in his skull during a trolley strike many years earlier. The ghosts in Kennedy's realm acquire their eternal appearance from the conditions in which their deaths occurred, but they continue to develop various potentialities in their character - personality, we are allowed to believe, continues to unfold after death. The infant Gerald's unformed verbal skills at death allowed him to acquire the languages of all the residents of the cemetery, not only diverse human tongues, but also the languages of squirrels, beetles and worms. The dead, it appears, just pile up, wandering cemeteries and old stomping grounds.
It is much the same with the dead in Sheri Reynolds's A Gracious Plenty (1997), which tells the story of Finch Nobles, the daughter of cemetery caretakers, hideously scarred at the age of four by a kettle of boiling moonshine she had pulled from her mother's stove onto her head, who discovers that for a disfigured outcast, the ghosts in the cemetery offer a more hospitable community than the living folks in town.
As a teenager, Finch learned that she could "haze" her perception while walking among the graves, allowing her to see and interact with the dead who reside there. The realm of the dead in Reynolds's account is transient. At first they are leaden and restricted to their coffins, but as they tell their stories to each other - shedding their burdens and secrets - they "lighten," gain in mobility, and eventually rise and fade to the next level of existence. The recently dead awaken in their graves, inevitably disappointed that there is no "hullabaloo... no saints waiting by walls of jasper," no harp music, no reincarnation into another body or life form. They are greeted by the "Mediator" and instructed: "You sleep in the coffin, you work in the air... In life, you lived on just one shelf. Now you're on two. The one above life, the one below, to help you see where you've been."23 Reynolds adds to this picture the revelation that it is the dead we have to thank for the change of seasons, the opening of bird eggs, the flight of bees to pollinate the flowers, the crowing of roosters, the timing of the tides, and the steady downstream flow of rivers. As the Mediator instructs new inductees: "The Dead coax the natural world along. We're responsible for weather and tides and seasons. For rebirth and retribution." They occupy themselves keeping nature running while unloading their own personal moral freight.
And then there is Alice Sebold's bestselling novel, The Lovely Bones (2002), narrated by Susie Salmon, who was raped, murdered and dismembered in a cornfield at the age of fourteen by a middle-aged neighbor - events reported in the first few pages of the book.24 Susie finds herself in heaven, which, it turns out, is a modest, Mayberry kind of place - with a tidy town square, ice cream shop, gossipy newspaper, and a high school resembling the one she would have gone to had she not been killed. Upon her arrival she is assigned a very motherly "intake counselor" who orients her to her new world. In the town square there is a gazebo that can serve as a passageway between heaven and earth below, and for the next 8 years, the ghost Susie divides her time between the simple pleasures of heaven and keeping her family under surveillance. The story Susie tells recounts her afterlife efforts to come to terms with the end of a life that had hardly begun, to console her family and somehow convey to them that she is all right, and to direct the authorities to the man who murdered her.
As it turns out, Susie's heaven is a transit station, her temporary abode for the years it will take her to tie up these loose ends. She determines that everyone passes through such a place between their deaths and their eventual translation to a more remote heavenly realm, and everyone's transit heaven is manufactured out of their own dreams on earth. Depending on one's preferences, "It can look like Nova Scotia, or Tangiers, or Tibet." The people one meets there are all real, if dead - even Susie's intake counselor is a dead social worker who had worked at a church with homeless women and children - and have landed there because at least some aspect of their dreamed places overlap with one's own. Susie compares this place to the thick blue crayon line in one of her little brother's drawings, the line that separated air and ground, "an Inbetween, where heaven's horizon met Earth's." As it happens, her heaven is populated with other victims of violent crimes. They console each other. Dogs are there, too, deceased pets running in happy packs and dining on steak tartar; eventually even Susie's own dog, Holiday, dies on earth and reunites with her in heaven.
The dead in Sebold's universe can watch the living, and can even make their presence felt - in fact, the earth is thick with unsettled ghosts - but they are restrained from any more direct manipulation of events on earth. The dead remain in their temporary heavenly abodes with this steady access to earth until they loosen their grip on the lives they left behind. In Susie's case, her counselor tells her, "If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling, you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth." The dead can also be held back by the enduring devotion of the bereaved. Susie remains in the waystation of her heaven, in part, due to the unrelenting heartbreak of her father - which she relishes; his sorrow fortifies her own attachment to the girl who had once had her whole life in front of her.
But HBO's series Six Feet Under is perhaps the most provocative of afterlife offerings to be found in popular culture at the moment. In the pilot episode, middle-aged Nathaniel Fisher, the owner of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home, is fumbling for a cigarette while cruising in his sleek new hearse. Eyes off the road, he runs a red light and is crushed by a municipal bus. His two sons inherit the business, and their long-standing sibling rivalry erupts. The family begins to fall apart even before they bury their father, and the appeal of the series is found largely in the stubborn fidelity that holds this troubled family and their grim business together.
In the world of Fisher & Sons, as in the ghostly worlds considered above, the dead don't stay buried. Their ghosts make regular appearances to taunt, console, and mourn alongside the living. At one point in the first season, Nate is smoking a joint with his dead father, when the old man taunts him, "That's one of the perks of being dead. You know what happens after you die, and, you know the meaning of life."
Nate: That seems fairly useless.
Nathaniel: Yeah, I know. Life is wasted on the living. [He takes a drag on his cigarette.]
Nate: So what's the meaning of life?
Nathaniel: Do you really want to know?
At this, his father suddenly appears behind him, leans into Nate's ear, and whispers something we can't hear. At this precise moment, Nate wakes up from a nap.25
In the final episode of the third season, daughter Claire, Nate's younger sister, is spotted wandering around the cemetery, looking for her father's grave. He has been dead for 2 years, and she had never visited his grave. But having recently had an abortion, broken up with her boyfriend from art school, and discovered that her mother is getting married to a man she barely knows, she is grasping for anything that might steady her life. Nate's wife, Lisa, has been missing for several weeks, having mysteriously disappeared during an overnight trip to northern California. A little girl dashes by Claire, trailing a red helium balloon. Claire glances up and sees her dead father, looking relaxed in a Hawaiian shirt, as if on vacation. "You looking for me?" he asks her.
Claire: Yeah, where the f - k is your grave?
Nathaniel: You're not even close, it's way over there. C'mon, I'll take you to it.
He puts his arm around her. They walk across the grounds of the cemetery.
Claire: How's death?
Nathaniel: Good, good. I made some new friends, joined the chess team.
Claire looks up and sees crowds of people - all ghosts - strolling about amidst bouquets of colorful balloons, pretzel wagons, festive steel drum music - a street fair for the dead.
Claire: Why? Is it some kind of special occasion?
Nathaniel: No, it's like this every day.
As in other landscapes of the dead in popular culture, these dead congregate at their burial grounds to indulge in each other's company. In Six Feet Under they enjoy a perpetual county fair, unseen by the living - most of the time. As Claire and Nathaniel make their way through the revelers to his grave, they pass the mausoleum. Claire wishes to go in, but her father tells her he will wait for her outside and finish his cigarette. She enters gawking at the stacks of marble crypts that line the soaring interior walls. The mausoleum is crowded with ghosts in a festive mood running their fingers over engravings in the marble. The camera pans back to reveal a stained glass rose window high over Claire's head - the traditional symbol of the beatific vision toward which the souls of the blessed dead aspire. It is one of the periodic allusions to the presence of God in the series. Then Claire hears someone call out her name. She looks up to a stair landing and sees her sister-in-law, Lisa, missing person, mother of a newborn, surrounded by stained glass windows on the landing and leaning over a baby carriage. Lisa has been missing for weeks - police suspect she is dead, but there had been no confirmation, no body yet recovered. Lisa exclaims, "Please tell me you're just visiting."
Lisa: Thank God
Lisa: Couldn't be better.
Claire: Okay, I'm so not getting this.
Lisa: There's nothing to get.
Claire [realizing that she's speaking to a ghost]: Lisa, if I'd known you were going to die I would have hung out with you more.
Lisa [reaching out to embrace Claire]: Oh, you're so sweet.
Claire spies over Lisa's shoulder the infant in the carriage. It is nested in a blanket printed with blue sky and white clouds, conjuring the surreal effect of a baby floating in the sky. Claire has a puzzled look on her face - Lisa's baby, Maya, is alive and safely at home with Nate. Then it dawns on her. This ghost baby is her own, the one she recently aborted. Lisa, seeing the recognition cross Claire's face, comforts her, "Isn't he beautiful? Don't worry, I'll take good care of him. And you take good care of Maya for me, okay?"26
From various quarters of popular culture, it seems, there is a revival of the afterlife. Heaven and hell, moral judgment on how well one's life was led, karma, purgatory, reincarnation, stages of heavenly ascent - all of these traditional ways of imagining what follows death are on display, and in new combinations. Fifty years ago, most of these projections would have been absent from popular culture, outside of horror shows - because, for some, they were hokum, while for others, they were too sacred to demean through popular media. But now all of this afterlife material is receiving a work over. The afterlife has become a favored site for bricoleurs picking through the eschatological rags of traditional religions and fashioning new garments.
As these artifacts suggest, the old ideas of purgatory and the communion of the saints, in particular, may be enjoying a renaissance. Purgation of one's guilt in an interval of time following death is an explicit theme in Flatliners and The Sixth Sense, and it is quite visually on display in What
Dreams May Come. It is also a component of Ironweed, A Gracious Plenty, The Lovely Bones, and Six Feet Under. The Christian belief in purgatory, contrary to what is ordinarily assumed, arose as a measure of grace. It offered hope to those believers who had sinned since their baptism at a time when the idea of "go and sin no more" was taken with utter seriousness. While baptism washed the faithful of original sin and of all actual sins up to the moment of baptism, there was no provision for sins they committed subsequent to baptism. Confession and penance, as we have seen, were introduced to address this, but post-baptismal sins, though forgiven and thus not obstacles to one's ultimate destiny in heaven, still had to be expiated. Borrowing from first century ce rabbinic views of Gehenna as a temporal abode where the souls of the dead were scrubbed clean before proceeding on to heaven, the church fathers (Ambrose, Jerome, Clement, Origen) began speculating about an antechamber to heaven. The Council of Lyons in the thirteenth century made purgatory an official church doctrine, Dante gave it a topography, and it became a constant feature of the Catholic mind after that. Elements of it have persisted among Protestants, as well.
The ancient Christian idea of the "communion of saints," found in the Apostles' Creed, came to be understood as the commerce between three groups: the Church Triumphant (saints in heaven), the Church Expectant (souls suffering in purgatory), and the Church Militant (faithful Christians on earth). The saints in heaven combine an empathy for the trials of the living on earth, having once lived among us, and an enviable access to God. Very early in the history of the church, Christians came to view the dead saints as invisible companions and protectors who offered friendship to the living and could be approached to intercede with God on behalf of those who prayed. Graves of the martyrs became shrines for feasting and prayer, ritual sites where the poor and the wealthy mixed openly - and often outside the regulation of the church's hierarchy. The graves developed a two-fold purpose: they became places where ordinary men and women could approach God through "the searching and merciful presence of a fellow human being" - the dead saint - and where they could contemplate, through remembering the saints, exemplary lives worthy of imitation.27
The observance of All Saints Day (November 1) was established at least by the end of the first millennium and continues to the present as a day of communion between the Church Militant (the living) and the Church Triumphant (the saints). This is an auspicious day for seeking and receiving blessings. The following day, All Souls Day, then allows for communion between the Church Militant (the living) and the Church Expectant (souls in purgatory). On this single day each year the weary souls in purgatory are believed to emerge from their sufferings for a brief interlude in the world of the living. Candles are lit and food is laid out for their nourishment. The roll of the dead is read in gathered congregations invoking their memories. But as the day recedes, the souls are required to return to the refining fires of purgatory. As it is celebrated in Latin America, particularly sumptuous foods are prepared for the ghosts of loved ones, and time is set aside to tell stories about the dead and to the dead, with the intent of keeping all members of the family, living and dead, bonded together by family gossip, and of fortifying the souls of loved ones before they resume their ordeals in purgatory.
There seem to be ingredients of these Christian beliefs and practices in the current resurgence of the friendly dead in popular culture, another legacy of religion. But an additional meme of the afterlife is asserting itself in these stories - the archaic motif of the living-dead. The living-dead are constantly on hand, making unexpected visits, sometimes intervening, but generally keeping an eye on the world of the living. These ghosts are familiar figures in traditional religions of Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia. The influence of immigrants from these parts of the world is probably, at least in part, responsible for the increased activity of the living-dead in American popular culture.
Twenty years ago, when I was in seminary, I worked with the youth at a church in Philadelphia. The church had recently welcomed an influx of Cambodian refugees who had been settled in the neighborhood in the early 1980s, and most of the young people I worked with were from Cambodia. Two incidents occurred during the years I was there that seemed strange at the time, but that I have since discovered are perfectly consonant with popular religion in Southeast Asia. The first happened when we took the youth on an overnight retreat to a camp in the woods outside of the city. We arrived in time for lunch, ate, and then gave the group several options for the afternoon - they could play volleyball, do a ropes course, or go for a hike. Our intention was to get them outside, to immerse these city-bound teenagers in the revitalizing powers of nature. The native Philadelphians lined up for the hike, but the Cambodian kids said they would rather stay inside and play ping-pong and cards. It was a glorious autumn day, and this caught me off guard. I cajoled and then pleaded with them to come outside. They finally agreed, and we went on our hike. At first they seemed timid, stooping and staring down at the trail in front of their feet, taking only furtive glances off into the forest and up into the trees. As we hiked, they relaxed, and after an hour, they were behaving normally - laughing, jumping on each other, horsing around. Late in the hike I pulled aside two of the teenagers I was closest to and asked what had been holding them back. Fifteen-year-old Sovann explained, "In our country, the forest is full of ghosts. They like the trees because they can hide in them. Once, my uncle was shot by a ghost sitting high in a tree. So many soldiers were killed in the forest, and their ghosts are still there." I asked him why, if they believe that, they were now tramping confidently through these woods. Sovann said, "I told them that in America there aren't many ghosts in the forests. Our country is old, and there are ghosts everywhere because so many people have died. But America is young, and it does not yet have very many ghosts."
The second incident happened one afternoon while visiting Sovann's family in their apartment. As always, when I dropped by - even for a brief visit - the family snapped into action and a meal was prepared. While food was being cooked, I asked Sovann about the framed picture of an old man I had noticed hanging on the wall. Below it was a small shelf with a bowl of fruit and a stick of incense. He turned to his mother, then turned back to me and told me that she wanted to tell me a story and he would translate it for her. In brief, the story went like this: Sovann's father, who was the sexton at the church, had been suffering from acute stomach pains for several months. I knew this, because Sovann had told me about it and we had been praying for him at church. He had been to a doctor but no cause was found and nothing he was given relieved the pain. A week earlier the pain had become unbearable and he could not get out of bed. Without saying anything to her husband, Sovann's mother called a fortuneteller, a Cambodian acquaintance who used a deck of cards to diagnose various ailments and misfortunes of her clients. Over the phone, as she arranged the cards, the fortuneteller inquired about the family's history, birth dates, circumstances surrounding the family's departure from Cambodia, and about what things - foods, activities, stresses - seemed to trigger the pain. At last, the fortuneteller offered her diagnosis: Sovann's grandfather had died before the family left Cambodia. In the haste and necessary secrecy of leaving their home at night to begin their long journey on foot to Thailand, they had had to forego the important ritual that would have allowed the old man's spirit to travel with them. The ritual involves lighting a stick of incense at the ancestral altar - this photograph and shelf I had asked about - and carrying the incense out the door and for the length of their journey, re-lighting new incense until they arrived at their new home. The ancestral ghosts, who have difficulty seeing, follow the fragrant smoke of the incense.
For 3 years the ghost of Sovann's grandfather had been unattended. His picture had been removed from the wall of their home in Cambodia, the bowl at his altar had not been replenished, and he grew hungry. Finally realizing that the family was gone, he set out looking for them. It had taken his ghost 3 years and a long trek, but 3 months earlier this famished spirit had finally found his daughter in south Philadelphia, and he was punishing his son-in-law for sneaking off with the family and not taking him with them. Sovann's mother asked the fortuneteller what could be done to help her husband. The fortuneteller told her to fill the bowl under her father's picture with fresh lychee fruit and rice, then invoke his spirit by lighting the incense. Then she was instructed to pray to her father, explaining the danger the family had been in and why they had had to leave their house so abruptly and without performing the rituals that would have allowed him to accompany them. "Make sure he knows," the fortuneteller said, "that the family would have been killed if they had stayed or if you had carried the incense with you." As Sovann's father was lying in bed upstairs, unaware of any of this, she filled the bowl, lit the incense, and spoke to her father's ghost. She asked him to forgive her husband. Within the hour, Mr Wong emerged from his room, came downstairs, and said the pain in his stomach was gone.
Before hastily dismissing these stories as the superstitions of folk religion, it might be enlightening to consider the views of Fei Xiaotong, an anthropologist from China who spent a year in the US in 1944 as a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. Fei had been trained in social anthropology in London by Bronislaw Malinowski, and approached his year in the US as an opportunity to do an informal ethnography on our tribal ways. "The thing that felt most strange to me during almost a year of living in America," he later wrote, "was that no one told me any stories of ghosts." This is a land without ghosts, he was surprised to learn, and while he admitted that this might be good for American children, ensuring that they do not have to live their lives intimidated by the prospect of intrusions from the spirit world, he wondered if there wasn't a heavy price for this, "a price I would be unwilling to pay." To live in a land with ghosts has this advantage: "ghosts symbolize belief in and reverence for the accumulated past." That is, "when tradition is concrete, when it is part of life, sacred, something to be feared and loved, then it takes the form of ghosts." Could our new wistfulness for ghost stories be telling us that we long to be answerable to sacred traditions with deep histories?
Instead of ghost stories, Fei observed, Americans have Superman - "an all-knowing, resourceful, omnipotent hero who can overcome any difficulty." Superman is a symbol for "actual capabilities or future potential," and it is this zeal for power and an orientation to the future that best describes American culture (at least in 1944), which is always on the move and ready to remove any obstacles that stand in its way. But with this freedom and with no ghosts to weigh them down, "People move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people."28 The power to dissolve ghosts is inseparable, in other words, from a congenital sense of homelessness and a weak regard for communal obligations. The sudden outbreak of ghosts in popular culture could indicate a spreading sadness about our geographical uprootedness and lack of enduring communal bonds. It could signal, ironically, a rebellion against the unbearable lightness of being.
The African theologian John Mbiti describes a similar view of ancestral spirits in Africa. With some variation, traditional African religions share a common belief that the living-dead dwell in the vicinity of their graves but periodically visit their human families, symbolically eat the food set out for them, inquire about the family, warn of dangers, offer advice and protection, and upbraid those who disregard their guidance. With "a foot in both worlds" - carrying fresh memories from the world of the living and having access to the divine in the spiritland, they remain important members of the household. Treating these ghosts well inclines them to be generous benefactors. Indeed, they are viewed as the most immediate link between human beings and God, whose ear they have, and can therefore serve as channels of the full array of divine powers. But if they were improperly handled while they were dying, if burial customs were violated, or if the graves are ignored, they become restless and vengeful ghosts, punishing the offenders with illnesses and horrifying visitations. Thus, they can be agents of either side of the holy - consoling guardians or terrifying fiends. And, indeed, the living-dead, Mbiti explains, "are wanted and not wanted." The living feel dread and even annoyance toward the living-dead, even when the relationship is a good one.
All this does not mean that the relationship between men and the living-dead is exclusively paradisal. People know only too well that following physical death, a barrier has been erected between them and the living-dead. When the living-dead return and appear to their relatives, this experience is not received with great enthusiasm by men; and if it becomes too frequent, people resent it. As Mbiti describes it:
Another interesting feature of the African view of the dead is that they are understood to linger on earth for a limited period of time - no more than five generations. When all who knew them personally have died, the dead move on, surrendering their names and individual personalities, and "merge into the company of spirits." The memories of their living relatives, it turns out, are the threads that hold them in existence as ghosts. Thus, it is only with the death of the last person who knew them that the "process of dying" is completed.29
In traditional popular religions, the dead, it seems, must learn how to be dead. They are given time to release their grip on life, and to allow their loved ones to let them go. A view of the afterlife is asserting itself now in popular culture that resonates with this more universal picture of a land of spirits that intrudes upon the land of the living. The shadow play of television and cinema, strange as it may be, seems to be stirring these shades from their hiding places in advanced modern societies. This emerging view retrieves many of the concrete features of its predecessors - gravesites are liminal dwelling places of the dead, the dead comfort, play pranks on, and remain interested in their loved ones, the duration of this ghostly phase is temporary. But the message of the ghosts who are turning up in popular culture also alerts us to more existential elements - that there is guilt to atone for at the end of every life, that the loose ends of frazzled lives demand to be put in order, that memories of our dearly departed are precious and ought to be invoked as if their well-being depends upon it, that rituals of remembrance have real effects, and that eventually it is merciful to the dead to release them from the grip of our affections. Perhaps our novelists and scriptwriters are reviving this land of the dead - poaching symbols wherever they find them and putting them to new uses, even to the point of creating points of resistance to overt religion - because theologians and clergy have grown too respectfully silent on these matters.30
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