Anna Della Subin

Here Not After (excerpt)

Who gets to have an afterlife? Who does not? Who decides?

A passport can let you in or keep you out. I learned recently that mummies carried them: it was a small, square papyrus, folded up in the linen wrappings and tucked above the head or at the feet. It had to be easily accessible, so that when the dead arrived at the border of the underworld, they could swiftly present it to the gatekeepers. The passports were known as “letters for breathing,” for they resuscitated life for those, from the elite classes, who could afford it. The papers assured the otherworldly authorities that the bearer was worthy of being let in. The ancient Egyptian Book of Traversing Eternity described the act of migration to the hereafter, a place that was said to lie in the West.

May you travel downstream to Busiris,
And sail upstream to Ta-wer.
You will moor at the banks of Anedjti.
You will perch upon the branches of the lalob trees.
You will take up the oar outside the mansion of gold.
Welcome, says the collector of documents, in the act of clearing your way.
The letter of breathing from Thoth is your protection.
You cannot be turned back.

The third-century text the Visio Pauli tells of how Saint Paul travelled to the next life for a visit. In heaven, he discovers that the Sun and Moon themselves had complained to God that human sin was filling the air with pollution. He learns that the Earth and the Sea had asked God for permission to exterminate humankind. But God replied—patientia mea sustinet eos: “my patience puts up with them.”

By the 5th century, heaven had become a construction site, under continuous redevelopment. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Christ had said, Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust will destroy them. It was thought that one could build physical mansions in the hereafter, using down-payments of daily, charitable acts. Each donation would set down bricks made of gold. The wealthy would claim the best real estate, villas built beside meadows and sulfuric rivers, near the abodes of celebrity saints. Pope Gregory I told the story of how, when a man visited heaven in a dream, he noticed that the construction happening on a certain shoemaker’s house was only being done on Saturdays. It turned out that he only gave donations to the poor on Saturdays, on his weekly visit to the shrine of St. Peter, and so that was the only day they would go to work for him.

The afterlife is like a trade deal, Saint Augustine told his North African congregation. Many of his listeners were merchants, adept at shipping vast cargos of olive oil and grain across the sea. Giving alms was the same kind of long-distance transaction, Augustine urged. The poor were like dockhands, ready to load riches aboard for a faraway port, and profits were certain to be obtained.


In 1867, just as the clouds of gunpowder were settling over the defeated American South, a clergyman in Nashville named Buckner H. Payne wrote a pamphlet that circulated widely. It argued that there were only two races of man, white and black, and that Adam had been the father of the white race alone. Only the white race was created in God’s image, it argued; only whites were granted souls and access to the afterlife. What was his proof? The clergyman argued that he had participated in the unwrapping of numerous ancient Egyptian mummies—an occasional pastime of wealthy Victorians—and all of them underneath, it was revealed, had pale skin. It was evidence, Payne surmised, that since mankind’s beginnings, only the white race had been bound for the afterlife, a view he did not invent but that was common in the Confederacy. The Flood, he argued, had been divine punishment for the mixing of races—God’s first act of ethnic cleansing. Buckner Payne, at the age of eighty-four, was buried in a box without screws.

Who gets to have an afterlife? Who does not? Who decides?

Heaven is a ruse of oppression, Malcolm X argued in 1963. The belief that the remedy to the world lies in a future life was designed to dull our anger right now. The man who would want to go to heaven, he argued, must have a brain as white as snow. The theologian James Cone argued that we need a radical reinterpretation of the hereafter. “Heaven cannot mean accepting injustice of the present because know we have a home over yonder. Home is where we have been placed now, and to believe in heaven is to refuse to accept hell on earth.”


New York 2017


Footprint Zero

Empreinte Zéro - البصمة صفر