Here to return to
THE LIFE OF THE DEAD
THE other day I went to see a woman whom I knew before the war — she was happy then — and who had lost her only son in one of the battles in the Argonne. She was a widow, almost a poor woman; and, now that this son, her pride and her joy, was no more, she no longer had any reason for living. I hesitated to knock at her door. Was I not about to witness one of those hopeless griefs at whose feet all words fall to the ground like shameful and insulting lies? Which of us to-day is not familiar with these mournful interviews, this dismal duty?
To my great astonishment, she offered me her hand with a kindly smile. Her eyes, to which I hardly dared raise my own, were free of tears.
“You have come to speak of him,” she said, in a cheerful tone; and it was as though her voice had grown younger.
“Alas, yes! I had heard of your sorrow; and I have come . . .”
“Yes, I too believed that my unhappiness was irreparable; but now I know that he is not dead.”
“What! He is not dead? Do you mean that the news...? But I thought that the body ...”
“Yes, his body is over there; and I have even a photograph of his grave. Let me show it to you. See, that cross on the left, the fourth cross: that is where he is lying. One of his friends, who buried him, sent me this card and gave me all the details. He suffered no pain. There was not even a death-struggle. And he has told me so himself. He is quite astonished that death should be so easy, so slight a thing.... You do not understand? Yes, I see what it is: you are just as I used to be, as all the others are. I do not explain the matter to the others; what would be the use? They do not wish to understand. But you, you will understand. He is more alive than he ever was; he is free and happy. He does just as he likes. He tells me that one cannot imagine what a release death is, what a weight it removes from you, nor the joy which it brings. He comes to see me when I call him. He loves especially to come in the evening; and we chat as we used to. He has not altered; he is just as he was on the day when he went away, only younger, stronger, handsomer. We have never been happier, more united, nearer to one another. He divines my thoughts before I utter them. He knows everything; he sees everything; but he cannot tell me everything he knows. He maintains that I must be wanting to follow him and that I must wait for my hour. And, while I wait, we are living in a happiness greater than that which was ours before the war, a happiness which nothing can ever trouble again....”
Those about her pitied the poor woman; and, as she did not weep, as she was gay and smiling, they believed her mad.
Was she as mad as they thought? At the present moment, the great questions of the world beyond the grave are pressing upon us from every side. It is probable that, since the world began, there have never been so many dead as now. The empire of death was never so mighty, so terrible; it is for us to defend and enlarge the empire of life. In the presence of his mother, which are right and which are wrong, those who are convinced that their dead are for ever swept out of existence, or those who are persuaded that their dead do not cease to live, who believe that they see them and hear them? Do we know what it is that dies in our dead, or even if anything dies? Whatever our religious faith may be, there is at any rate one place where they cannot die. That place is within ourselves; and, if this unhappy mother went beyond the truth, she was yet nearer to it than those despairing ones who nourish the mournful certainty that nothing survives of those whom they loved. She felt too keenly what we do not feel keenly enough. She remembered too much; and we do not know how to remember. Between the two errors there is room for a great truth; and, if we have to choose, hers is the error towards which we should lean. Let us learn to acquire through reason that which a wise madness bestowed on her. Let us learn from her to live with our dead and to live with them without sadness and without terror. They do not ask for tears, but for a happy and confident affection. Let us learn from her to resuscitate those whom we regret. She called to hers, while we repulse ours; we are afraid of them and are surprised that they lose heart and pale and fade away and leave us for ever. They need love as much as do the living. They die, not at the moment when they sink into the grave, but gradually as they sink into oblivion, and it is oblivion alone that makes the separation irrevocable. We should not allow it to heap itself above them. It would be enough to vouchsafe them each day a single one of those thoughts which we bestow uncounted upon so many useless objects: they would no longer think of leaving us; they would remain around us and we should no longer understand what a tombstone is, for there is no tomb, however deep, whose stone may not be raised and whose dust dispersed by a thought.
There would be no difference between the living and the dead if we but knew how to remember. There would be no more dead. The best of what they were dwells with us after fate has taken them from us; all their past is ours; and it is wider than the present, more certain than the future.
Material presence is not everything in this world; and we can dispense with it without despairing. We do not mourn those who live in lands which we shall never visit, because we know that it depends on us whether we go to find them. Let it be the same with our dead. Instead of believing that they have disappeared never to return, tell yourselves that they are in a country to which you yourself will assuredly go soon, a country not so very far away. And while waiting for the time when you will go there once and for all, you may visit them in thought as easily as if they were still in a region inhabited by the living. The memory of the dead is even more alive than that of the living; it is as though they were assisting our memory, as though they, on their side, were making a mysterious effort to join hands with us on ours. One feels that they are far more powerful than the absent who continue to breathe as we do.
Try then to recall those whom you have lost, before it is too late, before they have gone too far; and you will see that they will come much closer to your heart, that they will belong to you more truly, that they are as real as when they were in the flesh. In putting off this last, they have but discarded the moments in which they loved us least or in which we did not love at all. Now they are pure; they are clothed only in the fairest hours of life; they no longer possess faults, littlenesses, oddities; they can no longer fall away, or deceive themselves, or give us pain. They care for nothing now but to smile upon us, to encompass us with love, to bring us a happiness drawn without stint from a past which they live again beside us.