Don’t harp. Not angels. No hugs with long-lost loved ones. The “hereafter” is here and now and your ancestors, for good or ill, with all their traumas, their dreams and their love, are alive — in you. These are the challenging, startling, ultimately hopeful views Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation funeral director with multiple degrees in Christian theology, addresses him in his new book, All the Ways Our Dead Still Speak: A Funeral Director on Life, Death, and the Hereafter (Broadleaf, May 24).
Nearly a decade ago, Wilde built a blogging/tweeting social media following that led to first book, Confessions of a Funeral Director: How Death Saved My Life, in 2018. But cumulative decades of death care, heightened by the Covid pandemic and personal bouts of depression, have shaken him, according to his new book. Broadleaf acquiring editor Valerie Weaver-Zucher calls it “both raw and comforting and a deeply Christian book for people who can’t stomach Christian platitudes anymore. The arc of the book leads to the power of love.”
P.W. Talks with Wilde about scoffing at “heaven,” why the dead aren’t really dead, and what’s next for him now, if not eternally.
(This conversation has been edited for length and clarity).
Your book includes a test question for readers, “What if the afterlife doesn’t exist?” What’s your answer?
I’m perfectly content with there not being any heaven. Of course, it could be possible. Who knows what we will someday learn. God’s love has metaphysical implications we don’t understand yet. But I’m inclined to believe that this is it. This life is what we get. And I think this is healthier. The idea of heaven helps people evade a lot of difficult things. It’s a coping mechanism for facing the inevitability of death.
The book describes eternal life as happening now, “with each act of love we extend, with each act of love we receive.” However, you don’t bolster the book with Bible quotes. why?
It’s not a conventional Christian view. I feel a lot of power in the Jesus story, but I don’t know a lot of churches where I would be comfortable. I don’t believe in the God I grew up with, but I do think there has to be something that is good out there that is overseeing the world we live in despite the wars and the pain. What I do believe is that love can create resurrection, the hope that there’s more to come, however that may look.
In this memoir are numerous stories of people (presented as composite characters) sharing their conversations and experiences with dead loved ones. Aren’t there boundaries dividing life and death?
In my mind, progressive spirituality is not dualistic. It doesn’t separate this world and the next. There is a blending here, a liminal space. By speaking to the ghosts of the past, we are able to say our peace with them and move forward. We can look at the narratives we were born to, and we can change them.
You’re leaving the 170-year-old family business for others to carry on. What do you hear your ancestors saying to this?
The voices of my ancestors are extremely loud in me. I feel the tension of my leaving. Some call it being selfish. But it’s not selfish. It is for the good of my own being. I am taking the gifts they gave me — deep empathy, a sense of the power of community and connection — and rewriting my narrative. My book is a pretty vulnerable look at my journey. I hope it gives permission to others to do the same.
You currently deal with people trying to reconcile past, present, and future. What’s next for you?
I don’t know yet. Maybe becoming a therapist.