“For I am different, yes,” the Reverend admits, though he doesn’t say this to Willie. Unlike Bevins, Vollman, and everybody else in this place, he knows “very well” what he is. “Am not ‘sick,’” he says, “not ‘lying on a kitchen floor,’ not ‘being healed via sick-box,’ not ‘waiting to be revived.’ No.” He then describes his own “end,” which took place in the guest room of his house after a long life in the ministry. As he stared out the window, he felt content, experiencing a “stable and grateful state of mind,” something he “had tried to cultivate” all his life. He was, in short, in a “state of acceptance and obedience” as he died. “I was dead,” he says. “I felt the urge to go. I went. Yes: simultaneously becoming cause and (awed) observer (from within) of the bone-chilling firesound associated with the matterlightblooming phenomenon […], I went.”
That the Reverend was in a “state of acceptance and obedience” illustrates that, in order to successfully pass from life into the afterlife, a person must embrace or at least acknowledge their own death. When the Reverend uses the word “obedience,” he intimates that letting go of life is in line with the natural law of existence, something that must be obeyed. The fact that the Reverend is still in the Bardo, though, means that something must have gone wrong in his transition from the last moments of his life into his death.
Telling the story of his journey into death, the Reverend describes walking “along a high-mountain trail” behind two men he somehow knows have died mere seconds before him. The man at the front is wearing a yellow bathing suit, having died while swimming in Maine. The man directly in front of the Reverend, on the other hand, is wearing a cheap funeral suit and is humming as if he is in a state of happy and “willful ignorance.” As the Reverend walks along this path, he sporadically finds himself back at his grave, hovering above it and watching his wife and a congregation bid their farewells to him at his funeral. Every time this happens, he longs to be back on the trail with his two new friends, where a valley stretches out below them—a valley he knows, somehow, is their final destination.
It’s worth noting that the Reverend’s story differs greatly from the accounts given by Vollman and Bevins regarding the last moments of their existences in the living world. Indeed, while the Reverend dies and then walks along a path—a clear manifestation of the kind of progression and transition inherent to the life cycle—his friends’ stories end with both of them lying inert, waiting to be healed. Once again, then, it’s clear that Vollman and Bevins won’t let themselves accept the natural progression of life, which inevitably leads to death. Instead, they cling to their lives, unwilling to submit themselves to the transition they must eventually make. The Reverend, on the other hand, happily walks into the unknown.
The Reverend and his companions come upon a set of stone steps that lead into the valley. Since he was buried in his religious garb, the two men look at him, as if to ask whether or not they should proceed, and he nods that they should indeed. Walking along, they hear a “chanting of some sort, excited voices, the clanging of a bell,” sounds that make the Reverend happy. He and his friends step off the stairs into “a sun-drenched meadow,” where they find a “large structure” made of “interlocking planks and wedges of purest diamond, giving off an array of colors.” When they approach, a crowd forms around them and urges them forward until they reach a door attended by an “honor guard” smiling at their arrival.
These descriptions of the Reverend’s experience are chiefly expository, providing readers with a vivid image of the true afterlife in the novel’s world. In turn, there emerges a stark contrast between the Bardo (a bleak, dismal graveyard) and this wonderful valley. As such, Saunders suggests that many wonders await the Bardo-dwellers, if only they’ll allow themselves to move on.
The honor guard opens the door, and the Reverend and his fellow travelers walk across a diamond floor “to a single diamond table.” At this table sits a man the Reverend understands is a “prince; not Christ, but Christ’s direct emissary.” As for the room itself, it resembles a warehouse with which the Reverend was familiar as a child. Somehow knowing they’re expected to proceed for judgment in the order in which they arrived, the man in the yellow bathing suit steps forward and presents himself to the Christ-emissary.
Interestingly enough, this afterlife seems to present itself to the Reverend according to his personal memories and feelings. Not only does he feel like the room he’s in resembles a familiar warehouse from his childhood, but the valley itself seems a reflection of the kind of picture-perfect heaven he has no doubt invested himself in for his entire life. One wonders, then, what someone like Vollman or Bevins might see if they were to finally move on from the Bardo.
From each side, two beautiful “beings” with feet of “sun-yellow light” appear. “How did you live,” asks one, and both them place their heads to the man in the bathing suit’s temples, “beam[ing] with pleasure at what they [find] within.” “May we confirm?” they ask, and he assures them they can. The one on his right then sings a “single joyful note” as “several smaller versions of himself” dance out holding a large mirror framed by “precious gems.” “Quick check,” says the Christ-emissary, as one of the yellow-footed beings holds the mirror to the bathing-suited man’s face while the other puts his hand in the man’s chest, removes his heart, and places it on a scale. The other yellow-footed being looks in the mirror, and the Christ-emissary says, “Very good” as a “sound of rejoicing” comes across a “vast kingdom extending in all directions around the palace.”
In this moment, the bathing-suited man is deemed virtuous by the Christ-emissary. The fact that the Reverend and his travel companions are judged in the first place suggests that moving on from the Bardo means not only accepting death, but also submitting oneself to intense scrutiny when it comes to virtue and vice (at least in the Reverend’s version of the afterlife). However, Saunders doesn’t reveal what, exactly, has deemed the bathing-suited man worthy of this “rejoicing” sound. Rather than pinpointing the precise traits that make this man virtuous, Saunders suggests that goodness is an abstract concept, something that can be weighed and totaled in a way that doesn’t necessarily make sense to mere humans. It is, in other words, an overarching quality.
As the large doors of diamond open to admit the bathing-suited man, the Reverend glimpses “a tent of purest white silk” and a “great feast about to unfold.” Looking closer, he sees a “magnificent king” sitting on a “raised dais” next to an empty chair intended for the bathing-suited man. This king, the Reverend somehow knows, is Christ Himself. As he watches this unfold, he feels a happiness he’s never before experienced—a feeling that sharply diminishes as the diamond doors slam shut and he finds himself plunged into a destitute sadness that causes him to suddenly weep as the man in the funeral suit—also weeping—steps forward for judgment.
Once again, Saunders juxtaposes the utterly sublime with the otherwise mundane in order to illustrate just how enticing the afterlife can seem. Indeed, the Reverend gets a glimpse of heaven and now can’t imagine existing elsewhere even momentarily. A mere slice of heaven leaves him feeling the utter loss of such unadulterated goodness. If this is how he feels in this moment, one can only imagine the kind of wretched discontent he must feel on a daily basis, since readers know he currently resides in the Bardo, a place that is much, much worse than heaven’s diamond-enchanted antechamber.
The man in the funeral suit undergoes the same process as the first man, but this time the yellow-footed beings withdraw in disgust when they put their heads to his temples, retreating to two stone pots in order to vomit “twin streams of brightly colored fluid.” As the miniature versions of themselves scurry forth to mop their mouths, they ask, “May we confirm?” Aghast, the man in the suit says, “Wait, what did you see. Is there some—” Despite his protests, the yellow-footed beings continue, singing two jagged and terrible notes as the smaller versions of themselves tumble out with a “feces-encrusted mirror” and a scale. “Quick check,” says the Christ-emissary. “I’m not sure I completely understood the instructions,” the funeral-suited man says. “If I might be allowed to—” Before he can finish his sentence, the beings rip out his heart and shove the mirror in his face.
Having seen the joyful acceptance of the bathing-suited man, the Reverend must certainly feel an ominous sense of foreboding when the funeral-suited man elicits a much harsher reaction from the Christ-emissary and his helpers. Further, the fact that the yellow-footed beings don’t listen to the funeral-suited man’s protests indicates that there is no arguing against their determinations—vice, it seems, is just as pervasive and overarching as virtue, and once a person has lived out their life, there’s no changing how they will be judged. (But again, this scenario might be unique to the Reverend himself, and in keeping with his preconceived notions of judgment and the afterlife.)
“Oh dear,” says the Christ-emissary, and “a sound of horrific opprobrium and mourning echoe[s] all across that kingdom.” When the diamond doors open, the Reverend can’t believe the change that has taken place within. The tent, which had been made of silk, is now fashioned from stretched and blood-speckled flesh, and the banquet is no longer a feast but a collection of long tables bearing “numerous human forms” in “various stages of flaying.” As the funeral-suited man is forced to advance, he pleads with the Christ-emissary, saying there must have been some kind of mistake, listing off a number of “charitable things he [has] done back in Pennsylvania, and the numerous good people who [will] vouch for him.” In spite of this, the diamond doors slam behind him, and the Reverend realizes it’s his turn to step forth.
Making it clear that the funeral-suited man protests in vain, Saunders once more suggests that people can’t do anything to change the virtuousness or sinfulness of their lives once they’ve already died. Indeed, the funeral-suited man must venture into Hell regardless of what he says regarding his own positive traits. Once again, then, Saunders emphasizes that life is a temporary thing and that, once it ends, there’s no reversing death’s finality.
“How did you live?” ask the yellow-footed beings, and they put their heads to the Reverend’s temples. Up close, the beings look like familiar authority figures from the Reverend’s childhood. As they examine his life, he tries to “let them fully in,” wanting “to provide as true an accounting of [his] life” as possible. In turn, the beings withdraw “even more fiercely than before” and rush to the stone pots, where they violently vomit. Looking at the Christ-emissary, the Reverend sees that His eyes are downcast. “May we confirm?” says one of the yellow-footed beings as the mirror and scale emerge from either side. “Quick check,” says the Christ-emissary, and the Reverend turns and runs.
Even though the Reverend thinks he has lived virtuously (he is, after all, a deeply religious man), he discovers that he is not worthy of heaven. In this way, Saunders implies that living life according to various religious rules is not a surefire way of attaining heaven. Discipline isn’t necessarily an inherent virtue, he suggests, and living a pious life doesn’t automatically qualify a person for salvation. In turn, Saunders frames virtue and vice as complicated notions, allowing readers to step away from reductive, clear-cut ways of looking at goodness.
Although the yellow-footed beings don’t follow him, “whips of fire” fly by the Reverend’s ears, whispering, “Tell no one about this. Or it will be worse upon your return.” They then withdraw, and the Reverend runs in terror for “days, weeks, months,” forging on until, exhausted, he collapses and falls asleep. Upon waking up, he finds himself here, in the cemetery once again, “grateful” that he has avoided his fate. “I have been here since and have, as instructed, refrained from speaking of any of this, to anyone,” he says. And in any case, he recognizes the futility of telling anybody about what he’s seen, since it’s already too late for the souls here to change the way they’ve lived. “All is done,” he says. “We are shades, immaterial.”
When the Reverend says, “All is done,” he acknowledges that there’s nothing he can do in this realm to change the way he lived his life. “We are shades, immaterial,” he adds, emphasizing the fact that existing in the Bardo means living in a transitional limbo, one in which nothing can be influenced. Unlike his friends, he accepts the reality of his existence, but this doesn’t help him come to terms with his destiny. Rather than resolving to go forth and accept his punishment, he decides to wallow in the Bardo, where he can at least prolong his final judgment.
Ever since he learned of his impending damnation, the Reverend has racked his brain for reasons why he might deserve such harsh punishment. “I did not kill, steal, abuse, deceive,” he notes, “was not an adulterer, always tried to be charitable and just; believed in God and endeavored, at all times, to the best of my ability, to live according to His will. And yet was damned.” He wonders if he deserves this punishment because of his “occasional” moments of “doubt,” or perhaps because he sometimes “lusted,” or maybe because he has committed some glaring sin that “even now [he remains] unaware of it, ready to commit it again.”
In the aftermath of his flight from judgment, the Reverend finds himself flummoxed by the concept of vice and sin. What, he wonders, makes a person worthy of heaven? That the answer to this question isn’t as straightforward as the Reverend previously thought suggests that Saunders wants to portray goodness as complex, not cut and dry. Indeed, people often encompass both vice and virtue at once. The fact that the Reverend questions himself so adamantly—trying desperately to pinpoint his moral failures and shortcomings—ultimately redeems him, at least in the readers’ eyes, since self-examination and unbiased reflection is an undoubtedly brave and commendable act.
As the Reverend concludes his tale, he sees that Willie’s situation has worsened, the tendrils having engulfed the boy. As he notices this, Hans Vollman and Roger Bevins III come sweeping up to the white stone home, declaring triumphantly that they’ve succeeded in persuading Willie’s father to return. Indeed, Lincoln follows not far behind, making his way toward them as the moon shines on his distinctive face.
Having invited readers to consider the nature of vice and virtue, Saunders now turns the attention back onto Willie, thereby emphasizing once more how unfit this child is for the Bardo. Indeed, his fellow spirits either harbor delusions about their own existences (as is the case for Vollman and Bevins) or have been denied access to heaven because of some moral shortcoming (as is the case for the Reverend). Willie, on the other hand, is a mere boy, and yet he faces a worse fate than anyone else in this realm: forced eternal internment. Once more, then, Saunders implies that children are simply not meant to remain in the Bardo.