Father Bill Harmless, S.J.,—and may the earth lie light upon him—once told me that eschatology was an under-researched part of Christian theology. In any event, conditions in the afterlife are not subject to empirical observation, and while, if pressed, devout Christians will probably admit that God doesn’t live like a middle-class 20th-century American, and probably isn’t running a housing development in the sky, there is what seems to be an overwhelming desire on the part of humans to anthropomorphize the après vie. It’s a classic case of measuring something by the size of our own shoes.
The splendid Daversa mausoleum in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, is an excellent example. Although the construction partakes in some of the standard features of American funerary architecture, such as big flat slabs of marble and pro-forma appliqué fluted pilasters, the buyers customized this mausoleum with an add-on chimney, replete with two little stacks issuing from it. There is no hearth inside: it’s all for exterior show.
What on earth is going on here? Did the buyers think that cadavers locked into caskets have need of a fireplace? Surely the pious dead are thought to be beyond human frailties such as being cold. I’m left with the conclusion that the buyers added the fake chimney for its cozy connotations. People who build a mausoleum for themselves—and more likely, the surviving member of a married couple who has faced a spouse’s death up close—can be under few illusions about the reality and finality of death, even if they believe the pious dead will resurrect at a later time. But facing unpleasant facts is hard to do except rarely, and it seems likely to me that the buyer(s) were ‘in denial’, as they say, and cheering themselves up with a fantasy about their postmortem life: as though their mausoleum would become a cosy little cabin.
Putting a useless appliqué chimney on your mausoleum seems to me a very different kettle of fish from the behavior of those who (for example) memorialize good times by etching a favorite mountain scene or family photo onto a monument, or tape a Sanibel Island parking permit to it (figure 2).
This latter is pure nostalgia, a dose of sugary memory to help the hard reality of death go down a little smoother. For myself, when I walk through a cemetery and see how many people better than myself have gone on in endless waves of generations, it quite takes the sting out of death.