Ishmael comes in out of the cold and sleet and into the Whaleman’s Chapel, in which he finds a number of tablets inscribed with the names of whalers and sailors who have died, and had their bodies lost, while on sea-voyages. Ishmael is surprised to find Queequeg also in the chapel, although Queequeg is a “heathen,” or non-Christian. Ishmael also sees young women there, sitting apart, who appear to be mourning lost loved ones. As Ishmael sits, waiting for the service to start, he remarks that “there is death in whaling,” and that it might be his fate to die on his upcoming voyage. But Ishmael also says to himself that his body is but “the lees [sediment] of his better being,” and that, whatever might happen to him, it will not affect his immortal soul, which cannot be destroyed.
Here, Ishmael comes face-to-face with the reality that whaling is no pleasure-sport, but is in fact an extremely dangerous occupation—one that promises adventure and the possibility of physical harm in equal measure. Ishmael steels himself with reference to his “soul,” a religious consideration, but the remainder of the novel does not seem to emphasize Ishmael’s trust in divine protection. Instead, Ishmael seems to think that fate itself—a fate that is not religious, but has more to do with the realities of the natural world—will determine whether he lives or dies at sea.