Images of the Afterlife
I have no reason that I know of to doubt that I've got many more productive years ahead of me. But I'm old enough to know that those years won't seem as long as the years seemed to be when I was a kid, or even when I was a young man.
So I'm starting to ponder more seriously what, if anything, comes after this life when, as the 17th-century poet John Donne phrased it, "the bell tolls for thee" and you pass on, to use the gentle, euphemistic phrase that polite people here in the South use instead of that awful, finite and terrifying word die.
I have no realistic idea what happens when that moment comes. Maybe, as author Andrew Holleran suggested in his novel Dancer from the Dance, you're returned to the nitrogen cycle. Or perhaps Douglas Adams had it right in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when he quipped that maybe you vanish in a puff of un-smoke.
I grew up attending a small United Methodist church in the rural South, and the earliest image of the afterlife that was implanted in my mind combined a child's concept of the Christian vision of heaven as a sort of Disneyland theme park with images from old Looney Tunes cartoons. You see a Ferris wheel and other celestial amusements rising from behind gleaming alabaster walls, all of it floating on a fluffy white cloud. Saint Peter -- a sort of cherubic, rosy-cheeked bouncer with wings and curly blond hair -- guards the Pearly Gates, admitting the Good and sending the Bad to that big red one-way escalator that descends to a very hot place.
My thinking has evolved since those days. But it's hard not to return to familiar images. And so one of my favorite drinking games with friends is to imagine what Saint Peter might say to us when we show up for our dates with Eternity.
Before I go any further, I need to describe my personal image of Saint Peter. He's not the angelic cherub I described above. I seem him more as Humphrey Bogart in a reprise of his role as Rick, the cynical but sentimental saloonkeeper in the classic movie "Casablanca." Bogey plays a sort of Saint Peter-like character in that move. People from all over Nazi-occupied Europe come to his saloon hoping to find some way to escape to Lisbon and from there to the freedom of America. Bogart occasionally helps a worthy freedom seeker to leave Casablanca.
I see the entrance to heaven not as tacky, gilt-colored gates but as the airport in the movie's final scene. And even though thousands of people are dying every moment and all of them are meeting Saint Bogey at the instant of their deaths, when your time comes it's just you and him and night and fog. He's wearing a trench coat and a fedora with the brim snapped down over his eyes, and an unfiltered cigarette (yes, smoking is OK in heaven, if you're dead you're not worried about cancer) dangles from his lips, and the smoke curls off the cigarette and merges with the fog.
So you're standing in front of him and he's looking you up and down, and he doesn't say anything but the expression on his face seems to say, "What the hell are you doing here, chump?"
Then he's holding a battered clipboard and shuffling through the dog-eared pages of your life, and he's skimming quickly over everything but stops at something and stares for a moment, and then he raises his eyebrows and mutters, "Jesus Christ, you actually did that?" And while he's doing this, the cigarette keeps burning but doesn't get shorter.
And then the moment comes when he's going to tell you to either enter the Pearly Gates or take that red escalator. He takes the cigarette out of his mouth, discards it with a flick of his finger, and gives you another once over. You wait for him to speak.
I have an old friend named Chaz Misenheimer, a guy I grew up with, who's told me what he hopes to hear at that moment. We're both very fond of "The Andy Griffith Show," which presents an idyllic image of life in small-town North Carolina. We also have a strong preference for the older black-and-white episodes that were made before Don Knotts left the show and took his character of Barney Fife with him. But we've seen all of these old B&W episodes many times.
So when Chaz stands before Saint Peter, he hopes to hear him say, "Come on in, we've got 20 black-and-white episodes of 'The Andy Griffith Show' that you've never seen."
As for me, my guess is that when Saint Bogey takes that cigarette out of his mouth, he won't say anything. He'll just stare at me coolly until I finally get the unspoken message and turn and trudge toward the red escalator. But just as I'm about to step on the descending stair, I hope I hear him say, "Come on back, I was only kidding. You can come in."
NOTE: The picture at the top is from "Satan's Waitin", a Looney Tunes that released in 1953. The cartoon was written by Warren Foster, drawn by Virgil Ross, Arthur Davis, Manuel Perez, Ken Champin and Hawley Pratt, and directed by Friz Freleng.