A story by Ted Riethmuller

The Face at the graveside (2746 words)

 

A crow is sitting on a nearby tree-sculpture and cawing its objection to our presence.  I have a soft spot for crows.  They’re survivors.  The magpies and butcherbirds whose melodies once thrilled my heart are now long gone and I refuse to have a robobird in my compartment.  My old friend Adrian whose funeral I am attending had said before he died I was foolish not to have a robobird for my balcony seeing I loved the song of the butcherbird so much.

“They’re as good as the real thing.  Better.  No one could tell they’re not real,” he had said.

“But I’d know, and that’s what’s important to me.”

“No doubt Theo, but for a man of science and rationality like myself…”

Yes, the crows are survivors just like me.  But not like dear Adrian who was convinced he’d live for ever.  I look up into the sky.  The clouds have a pinkish tint and they haven’t got the blue quite right yet.  I think back to last night when on TV (yes we still have TV, not as escapable as it used to be alas) a talkperson from the Technological Advancement Transition Taskforce Inc. announced that they had everything in hand and solutions to the problem would be found and that in the meantime viewers should consider enjoying the new colours that were, in the opinion of experts, far superior anyway.

Not reassured, my eyes scan the horizon of office towers and blocks of living pods.  Close at hand where Adrian is to be buried I see that the grass is lush and green with tree-sculptures scattered around and flowering shrubs  that invite the naturists to test their skill in telling fact from fiction.  I wonder if the grass is real.  The lack of uniformity of growth and the odd thistle and clumps of weeds suggest that it is but I know that part of the illusion includes deliberate imperfections.  Then I see (my eyesight as well as all my other faculties is not as good as it was a hundred years ago and I have to squint) the turf has been opened out, as if by a zipper, to reveal the burial hole.

Now I can observe the attendees of this solemn ceremony.  Unfortunately I cannot be sure who is who.  Back in the old days members of the funeral party could be easily identified, the grieving widow and the children at least.  Their identity could be established by family likeness and age, now such identifiers are swamped by remodelling, refurbishment and even the full treatment.

The Spiritual Counsellor, easy to recognise by her posture and robes of office, has begun to speak.  I cannot understand what she is saying, my ears are as faulty as my eyes, but I can hear enough to tell, by the rhythm and cadence of her words, she is expressing the same old sentiments appropriate for the occasion.  “All of us who knew him… essential kindness hidden under a gruff exterior…principled man who believed in progress… perhaps expected too much of his friends and family —“. Yes that was Adrian but only part of the Adrian I knew.

As she is speaking I see a figure in the crowd who seems familiar but I do not know him.  A handsome young man with an alert manner and liveliness of movement.  He carefully makes his way through the group as if to better hear what the SC is saying.  This fact I find notable because I assume that most people do not listen but rather content themselves with what sounds like respectful and heartfelt sentiments.

I must admit though that the close attention shown by the owner of this unknown face has encouraged me to listen more carefully.  By so doing I am becoming aware that the content of the SC’s oration is underpinned by an undeniable, although somewhat nebulous, spirituality that presupposes a life after death that is in all ways superior to the one we endure in our present incarnation.  I’m unable to tell if the words have brought comfort to the mourners including the young man whose flush of youth  and radiant vitality means he is as far from death as I am close to it.  I can’t make him out clearly but I can tell his grace and vivacity is not simply the result of mere retreatment.

This retreatment, the refurbishment of human beings, had been a matter of disagreement between Adrian and me, not the only disagreement of course, but our conflicting views on the matter of refurbishment (he insisted on calling it renewal) epitomised the difference in our philosophies — and I suspect, our personalities.

“You’re mad not to do it,” he had said, “Science is offering us the chance to live for… why, for hundreds of years — for ever!”

“The prospect doesn’t appeal to me.  My instinct tells me I have lived as long as I should.”

He saw it was useless to argue with me.  “Rationality cannot overcome superstition and prejudice.  I’m going to do it.  I love life and to honour it we should live as much of it as we can.”

“I love life too,” I said, “and to respect it I want to let it run its natural course.”

“Natural course! Don’t you realise if it had not been for modern medicine you would have been dead by the age of a hundred.”

And so our arguments went back and forth but I believe each knew that the opposing positions we held were not assailable by reason.

“I’m sad,” he had said, “that some day, not too far off, I will be attending your funeral.”

But it was he who died before me.  The renewal process seemed to be a great success and well worth the fortune he had paid for it but after a couple of months, for complicated reasons, too difficult for ordinary folk to explain, the renewal process somehow went haywire.  He had said that some sort of positive feed back loop was occurring and his body was renewing itself out of control.  Like a plant subjected to too much fertiliser.

I had felt no satisfaction at this development and I said, “My dear friend, it is me who should be going, not you.”

“No, no, it’s my Karma,” he said (although I think he agreed with me).

It was the use of the word Karma, so strange on his lips, that showed a change in his thinking.  The rigid rationalism we once shared gave way on his part to a suggestion that our consciousness, in theory, could outlive the physical body.  He gave me a complicated explanation that depended on a knowledge of sub-atomic particle physics, quantum and string theory. Before the end and before he refused, out of pride, to see anyone because of the grotesque effect on his body that the botched retreatment had caused, I went to visit him.  His theology was by then quite well developed and advanced, so much so that when I was leaving him for the last time and said goodbye, he replied, “No no Theo, not adieu — au revoir.”

Fortunately our modern science of medicine was able to give him an easy death and even allowed him sufficient time and lucidity to deal with his earthly affairs.  His legal and financial business was wound up, last letters to his family written and detailed instructions for the disposal of his possessions were set down to the very last detail and even his funeral was to be stage managed in the light of his wishes. Although he knew one should not attempt to exercise control beyond the grave his instructions were nevertheless precise and extensive.

My thoughts return to the funeral service. The SC is still going on and on and I lapse into a reverie and think of his good qualities, his kindness and generosity.  My eyes water.  They do this when one gets old.  People think you are crying.  Whatever the reason I cannot see very well and it seems the young man who had caught my attention before has left the group of mourners and is looking down the burial hole.  The others don’t seem to notice and in any case they say nothing.  Now he has lifted the face plate on the burial tube and is peering at the face of the corpse within. Obviously a strange reaction to grief.  Who could he be?  I rub my eyes with the clean handkerchief I carry for this purpose, half expecting that when I refocus on the scene in front of me the young man will have regained control of himself and rejoined the other mourners. But no.  Now he is examining the tubular cardboard coffin and is reading the name-plate details.  Fortunately for the decorum of the occasion, he seems to be satisfied and moves back into the group and his face is lost to me.

The SC has finished and she takes a step backwards and clasping her hands under the folds of her robes signals to the funeral attendant who respectfully moves forward and attaches the sky hook to the end of the coffin and it is raised to the vertical.  The assembled mourners are silent as the coffin is positioned above the burial hole and after the slightest hesitation is lowered into the ground.

Out of curiosity I gauge the depth at which the coffin comes to rest.  It is about five coffin lengths down so he would be approximately half way down a ten coffin facility.  Not very dignified I think, but the fact is only the rich can afford such a disposal of their mortal remains.  I for one will be bundled off to the care of the TATTI, which we are assured, will deal with what’s left in a respectful and sustainable manner.

Now the sky-hook is dismissed and the funeral is over except some of the mourners are engaged in that centuries old tradition of dropping a handful of earth on the coffin.  I myself take up a small handful of dirt.  I’m not sure why.  I think it’s because I crave the feel of real earth.  I surreptitiously place the soil in my pocket.  One seldom comes across real dirt nowadays.

People are now departing.  I would like to express my condolences but do not recognise anyone as being next of kin, they all look the same.  Adrian and I had met in our middle age when we were both without partners.  He seldom referred to his family. I believe he chose not to remind me of my solitary existence, such was his innate sensitivity.

As I hesitate a handsome young woman approaches me and takes my hands in hers.  “You must be Theo, Dad’s closest friend.  I’m Paramita, his eldest daughter.”

The softness and warmth of her hands causes my heart to beat faster.  She is the dutiful loving daughter I no longer have and I gladly agree to be taken to her home. Her skimmer is comfortable and fast and soon we are in her apartment.  A crowd has already assembled, talking animatedly and even laughing in the manner usual for such occasions.  Paramita notices that I am stressed by the crowd and with a gesture causes everyone else to disappear.  I feel foolish when I realise the gathering of people was a hologram construct.  My life is crowded with flickering imagery, insubstantial, distracting and without meaning.  I have a hunger for how things were, when a man could rely on what his senses told him.  I think of the Manifesto: … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

Paramita senses I am fragile and sits me down on a lounge.  She excuses herself and returns with what I realise is an old-fashioned photo album.  She sits down alongside me.  I can’t remember when I was close to a woman, or a man for that matter let alone a child.  At her request I view the photos and share my knowledge of the people and locations captured.  But wait!  There is a photo of a young man whose face uncannily resembles the one that so caught my attention during the funeral.  I experience a frisson of horror as I realise the young man at the funeral was Adrian’s younger self.

I am shocked and unable to speak.  Paramita sees my distress and quickly leaves the room and returns with food and drink.  But I avoid modern stimulants and as a man who has experienced real food — beef steak succulent with its own juices, white bread made with wheaten flour, spread with rich and wholesome butter made from the cream of real cow’s milk — how could I eat roast mice and crickets in batter?  I beg her to take me home.  My mind is captured by the memory of the face at the graveside and I have a lot of thinking to do.

At home I sit down in front of my open journal.  I use pen and paper.  The pleasure of the smell of ink and the scratching of the nib.  Words flow from my brain down my arm into the pen then from the nib onto the paper.  Not mere composition but real writing.  But not this night.  My mind is too feverish.  I am finding it hard to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.  I throw myself down on my narrow bed and sleep fitfully with dreams like reality and waking thoughts like dreams.  In the morning I sit down at my journal and my heart stops when I see words I did not remember writing.  In my hand writing but not my words:

“Dear Theo, (On the evening of my burial.)

Heinrich Heine tells the story of how Hegel was confronted by a ghost and was quite taken aback.  The ghost, seeking to allay his fears said, “Don’t be frightened Herr Doktor, after all, you know that ghosts do not exist.”  I thought about this as I observed my own burial.

I won’t go into details of how this state of affairs caused me, once a diehard materialist when I lived, a certain amount of soul searching. I say “soul searching” — how inadequate these clichés are — I can’t say head ache either because having no material essence I had no head to ache and for that matter, aches and pains for the same reason did not exist for me.  And being without a heart I have no joy or sorrow that love brings.  And having no stomach I am not distracted by a bad digestion.  So why am I so dissatisfied?  It’s my own fault.  I should have known what is ok for robobirds may not work for humans.  But oh! If I could but smell an apple or feel the breeze on my skin.

I looked down on the mourners at my funeral but I felt nothing, only a diffuse curiosity and an awareness of being totally devoid of human feelings.  Of course I am dead and therefore not human – how difficult it is to express oneself when one has no body to reference one’s observations to.  There was my daughter.  I saw her tears but they meant nothing to me although I could remember the fraught discussions we had before I died and my promise that my affection for her would live on after my death.  In deference to the past I attempted to comfort her.  How frustrating!  I tried to touch her with my non-existent hand; I tried so hard to hold her to my non-existent body; I tried to whisper comforting words with my non-existent lips.  Because I am now nothing more than an “entity” with no material existence and she still lives in the material world, no contact is possible.

I saw the other mourners and moved between them – or rather through them.  In despair (now that is an experience I suffer in full measure) I screamed into their ears, “Help me! I am trapped!” but of course they heard nothing.

I don’t know what will happen to me. What have I done to deserve this living hell?  But since when can we expect to get what we deserve?  Perhaps I have scored the jackpot, Life Everlasting.

One hope remains.  My awareness seems to be slowly evaporating.  My vision is becoming cloudy; a pall of nothingness seems to be descending.  If you find no more messages waiting for you perhaps it will be a good sign. And then it will be truly,

Adieu, Adrian.

END

The Face at the graveside (2746 words)

 

A crow is sitting on a nearby tree-sculpture and cawing its objection to our presence.  I have a soft spot for crows.  They’re survivors.  The magpies and butcherbirds whose melodies once thrilled my heart are now long gone and I refuse to have a robobird in my compartment.  My old friend Adrian whose funeral I am attending had said before he died I was foolish not to have a robobird for my balcony seeing I loved the song of the butcherbird so much.

“They’re as good as the real thing.  Better.  No one could tell they’re not real,” he had said.

“But I’d know, and that’s what’s important to me.”

“No doubt Theo, but for a man of science and rationality like myself…”

Yes, the crows are survivors just like me.  But not like dear Adrian who was convinced he’d live for ever.  I look up into the sky.  The clouds have a pinkish tint and they haven’t got the blue quite right yet.  I think back to last night when on TV (yes we still have TV, not as escapable as it used to be alas) a talkperson from the Technological Advancement Transition Taskforce Inc. announced that they had everything in hand and solutions to the problem would be found and that in the meantime viewers should consider enjoying the new colours that were, in the opinion of experts, far superior anyway.

Not reassured, my eyes scan the horizon of office towers and blocks of living pods.  Close at hand where Adrian is to be buried I see that the grass is lush and green with tree-sculptures scattered around and flowering shrubs  that invite the naturists to test their skill in telling fact from fiction.  I wonder if the grass is real.  The lack of uniformity of growth and the odd thistle and clumps of weeds suggest that it is but I know that part of the illusion includes deliberate imperfections.  Then I see (my eyesight as well as all my other faculties is not as good as it was a hundred years ago and I have to squint) the turf has been opened out, as if by a zipper, to reveal the burial hole.

Now I can observe the attendees of this solemn ceremony.  Unfortunately I cannot be sure who is who.  Back in the old days members of the funeral party could be easily identified, the grieving widow and the children at least.  Their identity could be established by family likeness and age, now such identifiers are swamped by remodelling, refurbishment and even the full treatment.

The Spiritual Counsellor, easy to recognise by her posture and robes of office, has begun to speak.  I cannot understand what she is saying, my ears are as faulty as my eyes, but I can hear enough to tell, by the rhythm and cadence of her words, she is expressing the same old sentiments appropriate for the occasion.  “All of us who knew him… essential kindness hidden under a gruff exterior…principled man who believed in progress… perhaps expected too much of his friends and family —“. Yes that was Adrian but only part of the Adrian I knew.

As she is speaking I see a figure in the crowd who seems familiar but I do not know him.  A handsome young man with an alert manner and liveliness of movement.  He carefully makes his way through the group as if to better hear what the SC is saying.  This fact I find notable because I assume that most people do not listen but rather content themselves with what sounds like respectful and heartfelt sentiments.

I must admit though that the close attention shown by the owner of this unknown face has encouraged me to listen more carefully.  By so doing I am becoming aware that the content of the SC’s oration is underpinned by an undeniable, although somewhat nebulous, spirituality that presupposes a life after death that is in all ways superior to the one we endure in our present incarnation.  I’m unable to tell if the words have brought comfort to the mourners including the young man whose flush of youth  and radiant vitality means he is as far from death as I am close to it.  I can’t make him out clearly but I can tell his grace and vivacity is not simply the result of mere retreatment.

This retreatment, the refurbishment of human beings, had been a matter of disagreement between Adrian and me, not the only disagreement of course, but our conflicting views on the matter of refurbishment (he insisted on calling it renewal) epitomised the difference in our philosophies — and I suspect, our personalities.

“You’re mad not to do it,” he had said, “Science is offering us the chance to live for… why, for hundreds of years — for ever!”

“The prospect doesn’t appeal to me.  My instinct tells me I have lived as long as I should.”

He saw it was useless to argue with me.  “Rationality cannot overcome superstition and prejudice.  I’m going to do it.  I love life and to honour it we should live as much of it as we can.”

“I love life too,” I said, “and to respect it I want to let it run its natural course.”

“Natural course! Don’t you realise if it had not been for modern medicine you would have been dead by the age of a hundred.”

And so our arguments went back and forth but I believe each knew that the opposing positions we held were not assailable by reason.

“I’m sad,” he had said, “that some day, not too far off, I will be attending your funeral.”

But it was he who died before me.  The renewal process seemed to be a great success and well worth the fortune he had paid for it but after a couple of months, for complicated reasons, too difficult for ordinary folk to explain, the renewal process somehow went haywire.  He had said that some sort of positive feed back loop was occurring and his body was renewing itself out of control.  Like a plant subjected to too much fertiliser.

I had felt no satisfaction at this development and I said, “My dear friend, it is me who should be going, not you.”

“No, no, it’s my Karma,” he said (although I think he agreed with me).

It was the use of the word Karma, so strange on his lips, that showed a change in his thinking.  The rigid rationalism we once shared gave way on his part to a suggestion that our consciousness, in theory, could outlive the physical body.  He gave me a complicated explanation that depended on a knowledge of sub-atomic particle physics, quantum and string theory. Before the end and before he refused, out of pride, to see anyone because of the grotesque effect on his body that the botched retreatment had caused, I went to visit him.  His theology was by then quite well developed and advanced, so much so that when I was leaving him for the last time and said goodbye, he replied, “No no Theo, not adieu — au revoir.”

Fortunately our modern science of medicine was able to give him an easy death and even allowed him sufficient time and lucidity to deal with his earthly affairs.  His legal and financial business was wound up, last letters to his family written and detailed instructions for the disposal of his possessions were set down to the very last detail and even his funeral was to be stage managed in the light of his wishes. Although he knew one should not attempt to exercise control beyond the grave his instructions were nevertheless precise and extensive.

My thoughts return to the funeral service. The SC is still going on and on and I lapse into a reverie and think of his good qualities, his kindness and generosity.  My eyes water.  They do this when one gets old.  People think you are crying.  Whatever the reason I cannot see very well and it seems the young man who had caught my attention before has left the group of mourners and is looking down the burial hole.  The others don’t seem to notice and in any case they say nothing.  Now he has lifted the face plate on the burial tube and is peering at the face of the corpse within. Obviously a strange reaction to grief.  Who could he be?  I rub my eyes with the clean handkerchief I carry for this purpose, half expecting that when I refocus on the scene in front of me the young man will have regained control of himself and rejoined the other mourners. But no.  Now he is examining the tubular cardboard coffin and is reading the name-plate details.  Fortunately for the decorum of the occasion, he seems to be satisfied and moves back into the group and his face is lost to me.

The SC has finished and she takes a step backwards and clasping her hands under the folds of her robes signals to the funeral attendant who respectfully moves forward and attaches the sky hook to the end of the coffin and it is raised to the vertical.  The assembled mourners are silent as the coffin is positioned above the burial hole and after the slightest hesitation is lowered into the ground.

Out of curiosity I gauge the depth at which the coffin comes to rest.  It is about five coffin lengths down so he would be approximately half way down a ten coffin facility.  Not very dignified I think, but the fact is only the rich can afford such a disposal of their mortal remains.  I for one will be bundled off to the care of the TATTI, which we are assured, will deal with what’s left in a respectful and sustainable manner.

Now the sky-hook is dismissed and the funeral is over except some of the mourners are engaged in that centuries old tradition of dropping a handful of earth on the coffin.  I myself take up a small handful of dirt.  I’m not sure why.  I think it’s because I crave the feel of real earth.  I surreptitiously place the soil in my pocket.  One seldom comes across real dirt nowadays.

People are now departing.  I would like to express my condolences but do not recognise anyone as being next of kin, they all look the same.  Adrian and I had met in our middle age when we were both without partners.  He seldom referred to his family. I believe he chose not to remind me of my solitary existence, such was his innate sensitivity.

As I hesitate a handsome young woman approaches me and takes my hands in hers.  “You must be Theo, Dad’s closest friend.  I’m Paramita, his eldest daughter.”

The softness and warmth of her hands causes my heart to beat faster.  She is the dutiful loving daughter I no longer have and I gladly agree to be taken to her home. Her skimmer is comfortable and fast and soon we are in her apartment.  A crowd has already assembled, talking animatedly and even laughing in the manner usual for such occasions.  Paramita notices that I am stressed by the crowd and with a gesture causes everyone else to disappear.  I feel foolish when I realise the gathering of people was a hologram construct.  My life is crowded with flickering imagery, insubstantial, distracting and without meaning.  I have a hunger for how things were, when a man could rely on what his senses told him.  I think of the Manifesto: … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…

Paramita senses I am fragile and sits me down on a lounge.  She excuses herself and returns with what I realise is an old-fashioned photo album.  She sits down alongside me.  I can’t remember when I was close to a woman, or a man for that matter let alone a child.  At her request I view the photos and share my knowledge of the people and locations captured.  But wait!  There is a photo of a young man whose face uncannily resembles the one that so caught my attention during the funeral.  I experience a frisson of horror as I realise the young man at the funeral was Adrian’s younger self.

I am shocked and unable to speak.  Paramita sees my distress and quickly leaves the room and returns with food and drink.  But I avoid modern stimulants and as a man who has experienced real food — beef steak succulent with its own juices, white bread made with wheaten flour, spread with rich and wholesome butter made from the cream of real cow’s milk — how could I eat roast mice and crickets in batter?  I beg her to take me home.  My mind is captured by the memory of the face at the graveside and I have a lot of thinking to do.

At home I sit down in front of my open journal.  I use pen and paper.  The pleasure of the smell of ink and the scratching of the nib.  Words flow from my brain down my arm into the pen then from the nib onto the paper.  Not mere composition but real writing.  But not this night.  My mind is too feverish.  I am finding it hard to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.  I throw myself down on my narrow bed and sleep fitfully with dreams like reality and waking thoughts like dreams.  In the morning I sit down at my journal and my heart stops when I see words I did not remember writing.  In my hand writing but not my words:

“Dear Theo, (On the evening of my burial.)

Heinrich Heine tells the story of how Hegel was confronted by a ghost and was quite taken aback.  The ghost, seeking to allay his fears said, “Don’t be frightened Herr Doktor, after all, you know that ghosts do not exist.”  I thought about this as I observed my own burial.

I won’t go into details of how this state of affairs caused me, once a diehard materialist when I lived, a certain amount of soul searching. I say “soul searching” — how inadequate these clichés are — I can’t say head ache either because having no material essence I had no head to ache and for that matter, aches and pains for the same reason did not exist for me.  And being without a heart I have no joy or sorrow that love brings.  And having no stomach I am not distracted by a bad digestion.  So why am I so dissatisfied?  It’s my own fault.  I should have known what is ok for robobirds may not work for humans.  But oh! If I could but smell an apple or feel the breeze on my skin.

I looked down on the mourners at my funeral but I felt nothing, only a diffuse curiosity and an awareness of being totally devoid of human feelings.  Of course I am dead and therefore not human – how difficult it is to express oneself when one has no body to reference one’s observations to.  There was my daughter.  I saw her tears but they meant nothing to me although I could remember the fraught discussions we had before I died and my promise that my affection for her would live on after my death.  In deference to the past I attempted to comfort her.  How frustrating!  I tried to touch her with my non-existent hand; I tried so hard to hold her to my non-existent body; I tried to whisper comforting words with my non-existent lips.  Because I am now nothing more than an “entity” with no material existence and she still lives in the material world, no contact is possible.

I saw the other mourners and moved between them – or rather through them.  In despair (now that is an experience I suffer in full measure) I screamed into their ears, “Help me! I am trapped!” but of course they heard nothing.

I don’t know what will happen to me. What have I done to deserve this living hell?  But since when can we expect to get what we deserve?  Perhaps I have scored the jackpot, Life Everlasting.

One hope remains.  My awareness seems to be slowly evaporating.  My vision is becoming cloudy; a pall of nothingness seems to be descending.  If you find no more messages waiting for you perhaps it will be a good sign. And then it will be truly,

Adieu, Adrian.

END