"The Altar of the Dead" is a short story by Henry James, first published in his collection Terminations in 1895. A fable of literally life and death significance, the story explores how the protagonist tries to keep the remembrance of his dead friends, to save them from being forgotten entirely in the rush of everyday events. Although James was not religious in any conventional sense, the story shows a deep spirituality in its treatment of mortality and the transcendent power of unselfish love.
Aging George Stransom holds sacred the memory of the great love of his life, Mary Antrim, who died before they could be married. One day Stransom happens to read of the death of Acton Hague, a former friend who had done him a terrible harm. Stransom starts to dwell on the many friends and acquaintances he is now losing to death. He begins to light candles at a side altar in a Catholic church, one for each of his Dead except Hague.
Later he notices a woman who regularly appears at the church and sits before his altar, and they become friends. He eventually finds out that Hague had also wronged her but that she has forgiven him. Stransom can never absolve Hague, so this knowledge splits them apart. When Stransom, now dying, visits his altar one last time, it seems that Mary Antrim is asking him to forgive. He turns and sees his unnamed woman friend, who has become reconciled to him. There is a strong suggestion that Stransom is ready to forgive Hague—he feels how, "the descent of Mary Antrim opened his spirit with a great compunctious throb for the descent of Acton Hague." But the story ends with his face showing "the whiteness of death."