Clint Eastwood’s new film, “Hereafter,” presents the encounter with death in three individuals: a psychic, played by Matt Damon, who considers his ability to communicate with the dead a burden; Cécile De France as a television journalist, Marie LeLay, whose dramatic “near death experience” during a tsunami profoundly changes her professional and personal life; and Marcus, a grieving boy, who loses his twin brother Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) in a tragic accident.
These three people eventually interconnect, but the film provides no real answers to the question of an afterlife, only the possibility of a continued existence of loved ones, embedded in the longings and experience of loss of those left behind.
I did not find new insights in the film, but I emerged in a reflective mood in which I could not help but look back on my own
early experiences with death.
My grandfather’s death is the first that I can distinctly remember. As a small child, I appreciated the brown candied sugar that he generously shared with me from a drawer of his kitchen cupboard. During the first Christmas that I can recall, he gave me a sled and pulled me, to my utter delight, again and again through the living room.
Then, on a hot August day in 1953, while I waited for my older visiting cousin to play with me, there was suddenly a great flurry of activity in my grandfather’s bedroom, where the 72-year-old master tailor had suffered a fatal heart attack.
A priest was called so that last rites could be administered, and I was quickly shoved into the next room and the door closed. From there I could hear the impassioned prayers of my mother and other quickly assembled adults.
After Opa’s death, nuns came and washed and prepared the body, which remained for three days in our house since funeral homes or cemetery chapels were unknown at that time. Each day, we would visit grandfather and sprinkle him with holy water, which as a child I performed in unison with my elders.
I must say that this death did not touch me very deeply, although later it gave me occasion to write a poem in which I tried to find an answer for why the missed opportunity to play with my cousin concerned me more that day than the death of my grandfather.
I do not remember the mass for the dead or the funeral in the cemetery. Only recently, thanks to Facebook, did I see a picture of me with my grieving family outside the graveyard walls.
An aunt’s sacrifice
When my grandfather’s sister, my beloved great-aunt Gretchen, died nearly two decades later, it affected me much more deeply.
“Ditt,” as she was known among all who loved her, had kept house for grandfather, raised my mother and her sister and brother when grandmother, at age 28, died shortly after the birth of my mother in 1912. Not only did she raise her nieces and nephew with the tender devotion of a mother, but she also lavished her love and care on the next generation, my older sisters and me.
At the time of my grandmother’s death, my aunt had been engaged to a young printer, but she felt that her brother’s children needed her immediate and undivided attention, dissolved her engagement, and remained unmarried for her entire life. She nourished in me a sense of the sacred through her devout self-denial, strongly motivated by her religious life and values. She also instilled in me an appreciation of history and connected me to her own generation by taking me to her friends and showing me in the cemetery the graves of those who had preceded us.
At a crackling stove in the evening, she would tell stories that she had heard from her parents, and in the morning she would take me with her to church, which she never failed to attend.
Horizon of hope
That amidst all disappointments of human and fallible Christians I can still believe in the redemptive strength and healing power of Christ — and see in denominations and churches, however inadequate, instruments of the Holy Spirit — I owe to this exemplary human being.
No ancient or contemporary theologian or churchman has ever taught me so directly the relevance, truth and power of a lived Christianity that is capable of changing lives, as my beloved aunt did.
When she died, I saw a whole generation of self-sacrifice and commitment born of religious impulse die with her. Yet her life lived for others, motivated by Christ’s love for us, lives on and remains an abiding challenge.
This beloved aunt’s conviction that life does not end with death but continues in the hereafter first opened for me a horizon of hope that remains with me today.
Hans J. Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.