The columbarium at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a rectangular room inside St. Ansgar’s Chapel. The chapel is at the northeastern corner of the cathedral, and its somber walls are lined with square plaques stacked totem-like atop one another, in off-white, light peach, and orange-red polished marble. The plaques carry, engraved in simple block lettering, the names of those whose ashes reside in the niches just behind the smooth, cold facades.
In the center of the room is a small wooden stand where mourners and visitors place lighted candles and offer prayers for their dead. A few single stems of roses, the flowers long since dried, poke out of narrow gaps between the plaques. Four or five vases full of fresh flowers stand on the floor near the wall. It’s a solemn room whose intimate quarters set it apart from the grandeur of the cathedral.
I visited the cathedral for the first time on a Saturday afternoon in July. New York City was in the middle of a three-day heat wave, and, always happy to linger in quiet places where other people worship, I made my way to this naturally cool site. I was one of only a handful of visitors. St. John the Divine, an Episcopal cathedral, is the fourth-largest Christian church in the world, but it remains unfinished. Construction began in 1892 following a Romanesque design, but some years later, the plans changed, and the remainder of the cathedral was built according to Gothic patterns. The cathedral is a patchwork, and the visible seams connecting the different styles stick out awkwardly. The structure’s inner skeleton, safely hidden in most buildings, is highlighted here. Interrupted by two world wars and one fire, construction of the cathedral has started and stopped, started and stopped, for more than 100 years. When it will be completed is uncertain. Perhaps it’s for this reason that there’s something cold about the space. Unlike the much older cathedrals of Europe, St. John’s hasn’t seen its marble and limestone edges worn down by centuries of worshippers and visitors.
I spent most of my time exploring the seven small chapels that surround the cathedral’s apse. Each of these “Chapels of the Tongues” is dedicated to one ethnic community in the United States reflective of an earlier immigration to America. Represented are Denmark, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. Ireland and Scotland share a single chapel, as do Asia and Africa. Within the Danish chapel, named for St. Ansgar, the ninth-century missionary who converted the Danes, I entered the columbarium as another visitor departed, and we passed each other through a narrow hallway. I looked about the room and slowly made my way from one end to the other, reading a few of the names and dates, touching the engraved lettering as I passed.
I looked about myself for other visitors as I approached. Seeing none, I carefully slid the note out of its spot.
The tradition of housing cremated human remains in columbaria dates to the Roman Empire. Similar in appearance to a dovecot, from which the name originates, early columbaria were partially or totally buried structures whose walls contained niches arranged in rows and columns. The niches held inscribed pots containing the ashes of the dead. Columbaria dropped off in popularity with the rise of burial, but they have seen a resurgence since the revival of cremation in the early 20th century. Columbaria are quite common in cemeteries and cathedrals today, and New York City is home to many of them.
On the southern wall of St. John the Divine’s columbarium, five or six columns in from the eastern corner, I noticed a single small, pale green piece of paper, barely the size of a postcard, sticking out between two of the marble plaques. Knowing that I would give in to the temptation of reading a letter not meant for me, I looked about myself for other visitors as I approached. Seeing none, I carefully slid the note out of its spot just below the engraved name: Douglas Keith Ashley / June 1, 1955–May 10, 1995. I turned it over a few times without reading. It was a heavyweight card with elegant and regular handwriting on both sides. I quickly replaced it to see that it was easily done. Looking about me again, I removed the note and read. To the best of my memory this is what was written:
I hope you are well and can feel me thinking of you. I am writing to you because I would like to ask for your help regarding your mother. Perhaps you are already aware that your mother has passed on. I am worried that she may lose her way there. Would you look out for her and guide her so that she is with you?… I keep you often in my thoughts.
Much love, ---
The note was dated and signed with a woman’s full name, but, in my haste, I didn’t attend to these details. I recall only that the letter was written recently, and that the woman’s last name was not that of the deceased. The tone led me to believe that though she must have known him with some intimacy, she and Mr. Ashley were not close relations, they were not very close friends, and they were certainly not lovers. She needed this reason, his mother’s recent death, to write to him. Their living relationship alone was not enough to warrant a note. She might have been a second cousin, a longtime neighbor, or perhaps a caregiver. She was close enough, though, to Mr. Ashley and to his mother to believe that while he was comfortably settled in heaven, his mother might not have such an easy time making her way, she might get caught up somewhere.
“I hope you are well…” I imagined the writer at her desk or a small table, likely very near a window overlooking the city, where she always writes her letters. She writes this opening line out of habit. This is how we begin correspondence with those we don’t know well. Douglas Keith Ashley may be deceased, but her relationship with him retains the formal trappings that require easing into such a delicate request. She also wrote in a vague way of the health of some mutual friends, but these details came later, on the letter’s reverse side, and I cannot recall them well. I was too fascinated by her concern for the fate of the deceased’s mother and her belief that Mr. Ashley might be able to assist if only asked.
Douglas Keith Ashley died 15 years ago, only a couple of weeks before his 40th birthday. Quite a young age. His mother must have been heartbroken. I looked at the names on the plaques immediately surrounding Mr. Ashley’s and a few farther afield, but I saw none that would seem to belong to her. There were no other Ashleys. There was no one who had died within the last year or two. Evidently she was buried elsewhere.
I wondered about the writer. Did a small part of her feel slightly ill at ease writing a note to a deceased man and placing it as close as she could to the urn that holds his remains? Was writing a note more effective than thinking of him as she often does? Did she come to the cathedral on a particular day, the anniversary of his death, perhaps? Could this note have been here since May of this year? Two months? Would it be allowed to remain until its age began to show?
Though it was addressed to a man long deceased, I couldn’t help but regard the note as run-of-the-mill. The guilt-tinged thrill of reading private letters to other people was dampened by the note’s banality. “Dear Douglas, I have a favor to ask…” There was nothing illicit or secret, nothing mystical or magical about it. Except that it was addressed to a dead man.
This letter writer would never know the outcome of her letter. She would never know if it was heard or if it would work. But she wrote it anyway. I had lost such faith years ago.
The letter puzzled me, but it drew my attention because there was something familiar about it. I was raised Catholic, and as a child, I believed adamantly in the practices and tenets of Catholicism even though some aspects baffled me. After confession, I was confused by the priest’s ability to know that the sins I dutifully rehearsed were forgiven. I was confused by transubstantiation, especially by the bells rung by an altar boy during mass signaling the moment when the small white wafers and red wine turn into the body and blood of Jesus. Still, I had faith. I believed that these things I had been taught were true, and I took comfort in them.
I prayed each night before going to bed, even after my mother stopped overseeing my nightly prayers. I prayed because I believed it was good for me, and as I prayed, I imagined my prayers entering my body like the vitamins laid out with my breakfast. If I didn’t pray, I would develop a spiritual malaise that would have a physical effect similar to the deficiencies that would surely arise if I neglected to take those vitamins or eat enough vegetables. Now I see that my idea of religion was quite literal; I sought to impose a physical, concrete idea onto something inexplicable. Wasn’t this woman writing a letter to Douglas Keith Ashley doing the same?
Like my confusion over transubstantiation, the Catholic belief in purgatory dominated my childhood thoughts. I understood purgatory as a space somewhere between heaven and hell and reserved for those whose sins didn’t warrant eternal damnation. Purgatory was a gray and misty place in my imagination. Whereas heaven dwellers sat atop fluffy white clouds high above the earth, those in purgatory lived in a perpetually overcast, colorless setting somewhere just below, just out of reach of heaven. Though it was certainly better than fire and demons, purgatory caused me no end of worry.
In Sunday school, we were taught that if we prayed for the dead and if the souls of those dead were in purgatory, our prayers would help them ascend to heaven. I imagined, in my childhood naïveté that was reminiscent of the Church’s former practice of selling to its parishioners indulgences, or passes to heaven, that entry into paradise for a soul in purgatory would result after some precise number of prayers was said by the living. I prayed every night for my deceased grandparents whom I had never met. I pieced it together from stories my parents had recounted here and there that my grandparents had led less-than-pious lives, and I was certain they were in purgatory. I kept track of the number of prayers I said for them, tallying when they might be close to heaven. I even imagined them in the wintry outfits I had seen in old photos, watching me as I prayed: Won’t she say just one more? We’re so close!
Perhaps Mr. Ashley’s mother might meet my grandparents in purgatory. Isn’t this where the letter writer imagines her to be? Though she never writes the word, isn’t purgatory her worry? The moment never came when I decided that the number of prayers I said had finally earned my grandparents entry into heaven. At some point, I understood that I could never know if the number I fixed upon was correct. Gradually I stopped believing, and I stopped praying. This letter writer would never know the outcome of her letter. She would never know if it was heard or if it would work. But she wrote it anyway. I had lost such faith years ago.
I looked over the letter again, and, for a moment, I wondered whether my grandparents could see me there, hoping I would resume my nighttime ritual. Turning the letter in my hands, I wondered if others had read it also. If, perhaps, the visitor I passed entering this room had also handled it, surprised by what she found. I finally replaced the note, and stepped away from it to look again at the wall of marble plaques. I pulled out my camera and readied myself to take a picture as a cheerful couple entered the room, maps in hand. I took the picture quickly and made my way to an adjoining chapel, hoping to appear detached, not wanting to reveal my indiscretion. Perhaps they would read the note also.
The nave of the cathedral is long, and as I approached the doors, I felt a keen sense of nostalgia. I had never considered my loss of faith as something to mourn, and I still don’t. But this woman’s note to Douglas Keith Ashley left me with a strong sense of loss. This writer’s faith, her certainty that the sentiment of her note would reach its recipient, was genuine. I had that once.