According to recent surveys, around half the population of Britain still believe in some kind of existence after death. But there is no longer any consensus about what that existence might be, beyond ‘fuzzy hopefulness’, as Carl Watkins puts it. The Undiscovered Country, an exploration of changing beliefs about death and the afterlife in Britain since the Middle Ages, opens with the story of John Baret, a 15th-century merchant of Bury St Edmunds, who went to extraordinary lengths to ensure his salvation. Baret commissioned a tomb adorned with a stone effigy of his body in an advanced state of decay, observing its own dissolution by way of mirrors set into the roof above. He left money for an immense funeral, along with payments for the bedridden, the lepers and the prisoners in the jail, contriving to enlist almost everyone in the town to help him heavenwards. Weekly masses were to be said for his soul, and on the anniversary of his death, the entire funeral was to be re-enacted (lacking only the corpse).
All of this largesse was intended to speed Baret’s soul through the fires of purgatory, which according to the medieval church was an actual place somewhere beneath the earth, with precise and hideous torments assigned to every sin. Rich men such as Baret were especially vulnerable to the flames and