“True friendship can afford true knowledge. It does not depend on darkness and ignorance” – Henry David Thoreau
Halloween approaches, and as the veil between the living and the dead grows thin our thoughts inevitably turn towards our own mortality. Or maybe candy. I get the two confused, which is understandable for as the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg once said, “I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality”. Historically, humanity has spent a lot of time hypothesizing about the afterlife. We’ve even written a few good books about it over the years. A little thin on plot maybe and filled with unsympathetic protagonists, but generally bestsellers. Nevertheless, as a species we remain filled with doubt regarding our eternal dispensation. This is why we need a buddy system.
My plan is simple and time-tested. Everybody pair off. Find that one friend who you can trust without reservation and agree that whoever dies first will make every effort to drop in for a visit and provide evidence that there is a little more to human existence than living, dying, and rotting. That’ll never work, you say? Two 17th century French lads named Bezuel and Desfontaines would beg to differ. With great foresight, these two prescient gentlemen, in the exuberance of youth, concocted just such a scheme, agreeing that the one who shuffled off this mortal coil first would make a brief, phantasmagoric appearance to the other in order to confirm that the afterlife exists.
Mr. Bezuel, when a schoolboy of fifteen, in 1695, contracted an intimacy with a younger boy, named Desfontaines. After talking together of the compacts which have been often made between friends, that in case of death the spirit of the deceased should revisit the survivor, they agreed to form such a compact together, and they signed it respectively with their blood in 1696. Soon after this transaction, they were separated by Desfontaines’ removal to Caen (Jarivs, 1823, p35).
The whole signing in blood thing might have been overkill, so to speak, but the deal was solemnly made. Sadly, the friends were separated by the vagaries of life, but a year later in 1697, Bezuel began to experience a series of odd fainting spells.
In July, 1697, Bezuel, while amusing himself in hay-making, near a friend’s house, was seized with a fainting fit, after which he had a bad night. Notwithstanding this attack, he returned to the meadow next day, where he again underwent a deliquium. He again slept ill. On the succeeding day, while he was observing the man laying up the hay, he had a still more severe attack (Ferriar, 1813, p119).
Now, if you’re the kind of insufferably non-linear person who likes to read the last page of the mystery first, you’re probably presupposing that Bezuel eventually passed away and graciously returned to chum it up with his old pal Desfontaines. This was not the case, Sherlock. We’ll let Bezuel describe what happened next in his own words, recorded in the Memoirs of Trevoux.
At last, the next day, the second of August, being in the Garret wherein they were laying up the hay, that was brought from the Meadow, exactly at the same hour, I was seized with a like faintness, but greater than before. I fell into a swoon; I lost my senses; one of the footmen perceived it, and cried out for help. They recovered me a little; but my mind was more disordered than it had been before. I was told that they asked me then what ailed me, and that I answered: I have seen what I thought I should never see. But I neither remember the question, nor the answer. However, it agrees with what I remember I saw then, a naked man in half length, but I knew him not. They helped me to go down the Ladder; I held the steps fast; but because I saw Desfontaines my School-fellow at the bottom of the Ladder, I had again a fainting fit: my head got between two steps, and I lost again my senses. They let me down, and set me upon a large beam, which served for a seat in the great Place of the Capuchins. I sat upon it, and then I no longer saw Mr. de Sortoville, or his servants, though they were present. And perceiving Desfontaines near the foot of the Ladder, who made me a sign to come to him, I went back upon my seat, as it were to make room for him; and those who saw me, and whom I did not see, though my eyes were open, observed that motion. Because he did not come, I got up to go to him: he came up to me, took hold of my left arm with his right hand, and carried me thirty paces farther into a By-Lane, holding me fast. The servants believing that I was well again, and that I wanted to ease myself, went away to do their business, except a little footboy, who went and told Mr. de Sortoville that I spoke alone. Mr. de Sortoville thought I was drunk; he came near me, and heard me ask some questions, and return some answers which he told me since. I was here talking with Desfontaines near three quarters of an hour. I promised you, said he, that if I died before you, I would come and tell you so. I am dead: I was drowned yesterday in the River of Caen much about this hour. I was walking with such and such a one. ‘Twas very hot weather the fancy took us to go into the water. I had a faintness, and sunk to the bottom of the river. Abbe Meniljean my school-fellow dived to take me up: I took hold of his foot; but whether it be, that he was afraid it should be a Salmon, because I held him very fast, or that he had a mind to get up quickly above the water, he shook off his leg so violently, that he gave me a great blow upon the breast, and threw me again into the bottom of the river, which is there very deep. Afterwards Desfontaines told me everything that had happened to them, whilst they were walking, and what they discoursed of. It was in vain for me to ask him, whether he was saved, whether he was damned, whether he was in Purgatory, whether I was in a state of Grace, whether I should quickly follow him: he went on, as if he had not heard me, or would not hear me. I came near him many times to embrace him; but I thought I embraced nothing: however I was sensible that he held my arm fast and when I endeavoured to turn away my face, that I might see him anymore, because his sight was grievous to me, he shook my arm, as it were to make me look upon him and hear him. He always appeared to me taller than I had seen him, and even taller than he was when he died, though he was grown taller for the space of ten months that we had not seen one another. I always saw him in half length and naked, bare-headed with his fine light hair, and a white paper upon his fore-head, twisted in his hair, on which there was a Writing, but I could only read In coelo quies. The tone of his voice was the same; he appeared to me neither cheerful, nor melancholic, but in a quiet situation. He desired me, when his brother came home, to tell him some things, that he might acquaint his father and mother with them. He desired me to repeat the seven Psalms prescribed to him for a penance the Sunday before, which he had not yet repeated. Afterwards he desired me again to speak to his Brother; and then he took his leave of me, and went away saying “till, till” as he used to do, when after walking we parted to go home (La Roche, 1725, p407-410).
While not especially communicative about the state of affairs in the afterlife, Desfontaines was certainly fulfilling his part of the bargain. Reportedly, Desfontaines appeared to Bezuel on a few additional occasions with requests to pass on a few details to his brother, which is more or less the undead equivalent of asking someone to drive you to the airport or move apartments, but heck, the guy rose from the dead, so was probably entitled to call in a few minor favors. I’d hazard a guess that should there be an afterlife, they have to have some sort of protocol barring direct discussion of celestial mechanics and the dispensation of one’s soul after death, but Desfontaines, true friend that he was, appears to have circumvented the rules with the odd bit of paper twisted into his apparition’s hair, which read “In coelo quies”, which one can only presume was the Latin phrase, “In coelo quies est”, or “In heaven there is rest”. It might seem a little goulish to start planning ahead for the death of a bosom buddy, but luckily it might give you something to do when you’re dead or make your own imminent departure a little less disconcerting because, just as cartoonist Bill Watterson observed, “Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend”.
Ferriar, John, 1761-1815. An Essay Towards a Theory of Apparitions. London: Cadell and Davies, 1813.
Jarvis, T. M. Accredited Ghost Stories. London: J. Andrews, 1823.
La Roche, Michael de, fl. 1710-1731. New Memoirs of Literature. London: William and John Innys, 1725.