Home > The Altar of the Dead
In Henry James’ ‘The Altar of the Dead’ , a man, George Stransom, is horrified by the idea of how brief our time is and how quickly we are forgotten and so he builds an altar of candles for the people he has known who have died in an effort to keep their memories alive for a bit longer. There are candles for all of his late acquaintances except for one, who did him a terrible injustice. After some arrangements this altar is installed in a church and the man visits regularly. A woman begins sitting at the altar, also visiting her dead. Eventually, bound by grief, they begin a sort of friendship, until a revelation occurs that seemingly makes their companionship untenable.
The entire story is a sort of literary memento mori , which I enjoy (see the Vanitas gallery to the left), and the writing is itself like multiple candles in the night–both luminous and dark. It’s the sort of story that can be read multiple times without losing its capacity to impress.
The idea of a person not truly being gone until they are forgotten is also covered in Kevin Brockmeier’s quite good The Brief History of the Dead , which is based on the belief of some African tribes that there are three types of people, the living, the recently departed (whom the living still remember) and the dead whose names are only known.