William Wallace Lincoln died of typhoid fever at about 5 pm on February 20 of 1862, less than a year into the Civil War. He was eleven years old. He was not the first child that Abraham and Mary Lincoln had lost. Their son Edward, not yet four years old, had died twelve years earlier. But Willie’s death, by all accounts, was harder on them. At first sight of his son’s lifeless body, President Lincoln is widely reported to have said, “My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die.”[i]
The brilliant and imaginative contemporary writer George Saunders published a novel in February of this year that imagines what took place among the dead who were supposedly already at rest in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown on the night of February 24, when Willie Lincoln’s body was placed there in the Carroll Family vault (Lot 292). President Lincoln is believed to have visited the stone mausoleum several times, stooping beneath its arched entryway, maybe even on that first night after the funeral, and to have asked to have the casket opened. There is some debate about whether or not the Lincolns believed that the living could communicate with the dead; but they were Presbyterians, so I can neither account for nor even vaguely imagine what they might have believed.
Saunders’s book imagines that young Willie found himself in “the bardo,” that is, in a sort of limbo, a liminal place or condition that is part of Tibetan Buddhist thought, in between lives, a “bodiless state that exists in the lag between one incarnation and the next.”[ii] In Saunders’s imagination it is a difficult state in which to be. Many of the souls there in the cemetery with Willie – let’s call them ‘ghosts’ for lack of a better word – are there because they have not accepted that they are really dead. They insist that they are only sick, their bodies, quite removed from their souls, are “sick-forms” resting in “sick boxes,” until they can return to the unfinished business, hopes, and dreams of their lives on earth.
For Willie, this in-between state is somewhat tantalizing not only because he is so young, but also because of the visit of his beloved and be-loving father, who is struggling to let go of his dead child, just as the child is struggling to let go of his father. Saunders imagines Lincoln thinking:
“His little face again. Little hands. Here they are. Ever will be. Just so. No smile. Ever again. The mouth a tight line. He does not (no) look like he is sleeping…
“If there ever really was a Lazarus, there should be nothing preventing the conditions that pertained at that time to pertain here and now….
“Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise. By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to …make [the boy] rise…
“Please please please.
That is superstition.
“Will not do.” [iii]
There is no amusement to be found in imaging the grief of a father (or a mother) for his (or her) dead child. The question – for the parents, most poignantly – is whether or not there is any meaning in that death. Or to put it in a Christian way, the question is whether or not that death leads only to the grave, or whether or not death leads beyond the cemetery to some new life, prepared for us by the God who made us and who loves us?
Easter is, of course, the day for empty graves – well, at least the day for one empty tomb. And what a joy it is to be here and to proclaim the Good News of that empty tomb and of our risen Lord! In truth, however, you probably do not need me to reiterate this story for you.
But it may be that, like Abraham Lincoln, you have had trouble letting go of someone who has died. It may be that that someone is a child. It may be that you have wondered, still wonder, if that death has any meaning. It may be that you have wondered, or still wonder, whether or not death leads only to the grave, whether or not death leads beyond the cemetery to some new life prepared for us by the God who made us and who loves us. This is a poignant question. And it may be that the question on Easter Day that is far more poignant than the disposition of Jesus’ grave, is the disposition of Willie Lincoln’s grave; the more poignant question being the status of the body and soul of someone from whose grave the stone has not been rolled away. What does Easter mean to the dead?
In nine pages of exquisite writing, George Saunders allows himself to imagine what the scene might be like in the vicinity of the gates of heaven – or more precisely, the gates of judgment that may lead either to paradise or perdition. This kind of imagining is a fool’s errand, of course, but, oh my, is it beautifully carried out by Saunders’s hand. I won’t read it all to you, but I will tell you that he writes of“a tremendous set of diamond doors at the far end of the hall [that] flew open, revealing an even vaster hall.
“… [and] within, a tent of purest white silk (although to describe it thus is to defame it – this was no earthly silk, but a higher, more perfect variety, of which our silk is a laughable imitation)… on a raised dais sat our host, a magnificent king, and next to the king’s place sat an empty chair (a grand chair, upholstered in gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy), and that chair was intended [for the newest entrant].”[iv] Oh, what a heavenly vision!
It has always seemed to me that some version of Purgatory is a hopeful doctrine, since I am not at all sure I will have worked out all the repentance in this life that I need to, and, as has been the case for me on almost every assignment I’ve ever had, I’d like a little extra time. But the thing about “the Bardo,” that in-between state in which Saunders imagines Willie Lincoln and his cemetery neighbors, is that they cannot accept that they are dead. This denial seems like an apt insight into a society like ours in which people seldom can bring themselves even to speak words like death, dead, dying, died, preferring instead to say in hushed tones that someone has “passed.” Although I could be wrong, this vocabulary choice always sounds to me more like a euphemism that is trapped in denial than like a statement of faith.
In the book, the turning point of Willie Lincoln’s time in the Bardo comes when he is finally able to admit that he is dead, having overheard his father make that heart-breaking admission as well. Only then, can he begin his journey to the diamond doors, and the vast hall, and the magnificent king who awaits him.
The women who went to the tomb that first Easter did not know, even when they found the tomb empty, exactly what it meant. Even when Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, and realized who he is – how could she possibly have know what it meant for him or for her?!? But we celebrate today that first Easter morning when the Good News of the Resurrection began to dawn on believers, to whom God was revealing some new thing in the resurrection of his Son.
And having had more time to consider the implications of Christ’s rising, we can say that part of every acclamation that Christ is risen, is the belief that we shall rise as well; that Christ has staked out, lighted, and the led the way to what might be something like a tremendous set of diamond doors that open into a vast hall wherein waits for us a magnificent king, who is, himself, Jesus. And that beside that king sits an empty chair: a grand chair upholstered with gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy. Although the details may be incorrect, the meaning of this description is what matters. And the meaning is that such a golden chair was made for Willie Lincoln. And one will be made for you, and one will be made for me.
152 years ago yesterday Abraham Lincoln died, having been shot the night before at Ford’s Theater in Washington. When the casket carrying the president’s body was loaded onto the funeral train, it was joined by the much smaller casket of his son Willie, retrieved from Lot 292 in the cemetery in Georgetown to make the three-week journey to Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois. Just a bit more than three years had passed since Willie’s death.
Across Rittenhouse Square, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, eight days later, as the train bearing those two bodies stopped here in Philadelphia, the greatest living preacher of the time, Phillips Brooks, rector of our neighboring parish, delivered a sermon that eloquently eulogized the 16th president and deeply bewailed not only his death but also the awful sin of Slavery at whose feet Brooks laid responsibility for that death. The sermon draws on the image from the Psalms which tell us that God “chose David… his servant and took him away from the sheepfolds.”[v] But you can tell, reading the sermon, that Brooks was having a hard time accepting Lincoln’s death. Perhaps it was a convention of the preaching of the time, or the urgency of the moment in the midst of civil war, but it is notable that almost all of the sermon deals with what the President had done in this life; there is no mention at all of the Resurrection, of the ministry of Jesus, or that some new hope lies ahead for the slain president, or for his little son.[vi]
It would be normal to say that Lincoln and his son were reunited in death, and brought together at last forever in their twin burial in Springfield. It’s the kind of thing you say. But it would also be wrong to say that, because we would be assuming that both Lincoln and his little son Willie were still in the Bardo, stuck in between this life and whatever comes next; it would be to imagine that their graves are their homes forever now, not even sick-boxes, just a place to decompose together quietly, as if this were a noble activity for a father and a son to undertake together in death.
But the real implication of our proclamation this morning is that somewhere in heaven there is a weaver weaving cloth that’s made of gold, if gold were spun of light and each particle of that light exuded joy and the sound of joy. And that weaver is preparing the fabric for a seat, or a chair, or a sofa, or a chaise longue, or some such thing that has been placed beside a king: the only king who has known death and also conquered it. And who has won this awesome victory not so that he could claim his throne, but so that Willie Lincoln and his dad could claim their thrones, and so that you and I can claim ours.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Easter Day 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Brady, Dennis, in The Washington Post, 7 October 2011, “Willie Lincoln’s death: A private agony for a president facing a nation of pain.”
[ii] Sheehan, Jason, on NPR.org, “Letting Go is the Hardest Thing for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo,’” 18 February 2017
[iii] Saunders, George, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” New York, Random House, 2017, p. 243
[iv] Ibid . p. 190
[v] Psalm 78:70
[vi] Brooks, Phillips, “The Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln”, 23 April 1865, published by Henry B. Ashmead, Philadelphia, 1865