|the altar at Towneley, ready for our All Souls Mass|
To non-Catholics, Catholics' obsession with the dead seems gloomy and macabre. But preoccupation with the condition of the dead predates Catholicism by many thousands of years. Why else did the Neanderthals bury their dead with tools and animal bones, if not to assist them on their way? Praying for the dead is similar assistance, although for the soul rather than the body, and it's been Catholic practice to have Mass said for the souls of the faithful departed since at least the 8th century.
Catholics are keen on souls. They're also keen on reparation for sin, hence the doctrine of Purgatory, formally defined in 1274, but connected to the ancient Jewish belief of purification after death. Purgatory is the place where, unless you've been ludicrously good all your life, you atone for your sins before slipping gratefully into Heaven.
What a load of nonsense, you might say. You may be right. But understanding even the most apparently nonsensical religious practices (and this isn't nearly the most nonsensical, if you're on the lookout for nonsense) is vital to understanding how we are all shaped. Historical novelists need to be careful. It's fine to show that, for example, people in 14th century Europe disliked religion in the form of priests and bishops, but it would be wrong to remove their healthy respect for God, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. It wasn't tradition that had them pray for the dead or build chantry chapels for perpetual intercession: the driving force was the need to get the relations into Heaven asap and by doing so to ensure your own swift passage in due course. Call them silly if you want. Call them superstitious if you must. But Catholics' care for the dead was neither silly nor superstitious; they believed, and still believe profoundly, that the dead need us and we need them.
I am not a good Catholic. In many ways, I'm barely a Catholic at all - it goes in phases and I'm currently in a 'no' phase. Nevertheless, when I see the Whalley vestments, brought to Towneley during the dissolution of the monasteries; when I pass through the oak door bearing the initials of John and Mary Towneley, married in 1556; and when I kneel in front of the sixteenth century altar in the house of my ancestors, I feel challenged. Do I really know better than them? And so what if I do? Isn't praying for the dead better than not praying for them?
After we've done the Dead, we have breakfast in the servants' dining room. That, far more than the continuation of the All Souls Mass, would cause surprise. 'Good Heavens!' the spectral relations might well exclaim. 'The servants' dining room? What the hell are you doing in there?'