The last time I burned somebody I was sixty two years old. I had worked on the Station for thirteen years after the funeral home moved up there. I was chief in charge of Cremations and I loved my work. After all, I was helping people to fulfil their last wishes and that was truly satisfying. Nothing else in my life ever meant as much to me; I had only ever had one true love, and my work was it.
* * *
I still remember the day of the first request. It was a Wednesday morning and the air-con wasn’t working. This happened every so often, and so we were all rugged up in the big thermal suits they kept in a closet just for this purpose. They’re actually fuelled on body warmth and kinetic energy, so the longer you wear them, the warmer they got. They had an auto-release valve that let a fair amount of the heat out every two hours, or else you’d end up slowly roasting yourself.
Anyway, we had just brought the bodies in off the ship and were stacking them onto the racks when Gerry, my boss, came up to me and said:
„Elliot, we’ve got a special request from some Political bigshot. Can you handle it?“
„What’s the guy want?“ I asked. Gerry and I went back twenty seven years and I was his right hand man and personal friend.
„A jettison. Sculpted into a shape and jettisoned.“
„Sculpted?“ I replied.
„Sculpted,“ he said, and catching my look, added, „And jettisoned.“
„What do you mean?“
„Some heroic pose. Him with one arm outstretched and looking bravely into the distance. Just bullshit, but you know these Politicians,“ he said and laughed. I laughed as well, but that was as far as the laughing went. Tacky as it may have been, the dead are always afforded the luxury of dignity where we work. After all, everyone who worked at the station knew that one day they would end up in here, just like everyone else.
„Alright, Gerry. No problem,“ I said, removing my smile and taking the Death Record before he walked off, leaving me to my task. I finished helping the guys rack the bodies and carry them through to Treatment. All the bodies that went up there had been autopsied and had their organs removed for donation on Earth, so all we did was cremate or bury according to the deceased’s wishes. People used to be buried on Earth once, but times and populations had changed a great deal in the years since that was common. Even though we sent bodies out into space, they still got a coffin and we still called it ‚burial.‘
Twenty five years ago, World War Three finally occurred after centuries of narrow escapes. As they had banned all nuclear weapons in the far-flung past, they fought with Quakers. All they had to do was aim them at an area where tectonic plates of the Earth’s continents met, and fire. The super large missiles would burrow down kilometres and detonate when they sensed a certain pressure shift in the ground, thus causing massive upheaval in the plates. Instant earthquake. Great regions of land were destroyed and millions lost their lives. The (surviving) nations of the world all realised what a grievous error they had made and met in Australia – a nation mostly unharmed by the Quakers, and comparatively politically sound – to sign the now-famous ‚Nobel Peace Accord.‘ It was during this three week convention that it was decided to begin shipping the deceased off-world, as the remaining land on Earth now stood at just a little over one-fifteenth, compared to the former one-eighth. Everything else was just dirty ocean. More people survived the war than were killed, so all land suddenly became one hundred times more precious; and more crowded. Where to bury the dead? No room on Earth, so where else? In space of course, and so our funeral home moved up into orbit.
As Gerry and I were the two foremost surviving employees of our funeral home, we became funeral directors by default. Of course there were thousands of other homes who made the move as well, and soon they were all up there with around twenty two thousand other funeral parlours, crematoriums and cemeteries. Some have large warehouses where the dead are ‚buried‘ in fields of concrete, and some have large halls that contain endless rows of urns and ashes. The treatment of the dead is, of course, up to the deceased’s wishes and family, and if they’re willing to pay the large sums to have them ‚buried‘ and in a place they may wish to visit them at some stage, then that is entirely up to them. Personally, I wish to be cremated and have my ashes scattered on the moon. It was the Moon that I remember seeing one night during the war. I was outside when the radio announced that the entire West Coast of America had fallen into the sea. I remember looking up at the Moon and thinking how safe and still it looked, and how calm it made me feel in the midst of all that turmoil.
Anyhow, that’s how Gerry and I – formerly just body handlers – became manager and TwoIC of Still Life Funerals Pty Ltd. We had a few teething problems at first, but that’s to be expected with new managers. The building of the funeral homes was a boost to the newly-formed Peace Alliance and finally the world had a real purpose, a definitive goal that could unite everyone. And it did. Hatred and intolerance finally died natural deaths, as did racism and terrorism. For the first time in the history of the world; there was true and uniform peace.
* * *
So; after we had stacked the bodies in Treatment, I looked at the file of this guy. His name was Pierre le’Strange and he had been a minor figure in the actions of the Nobel Peace Accord. His name, I read, was placed ninety-sixth in the list of signatures on the Accord, well into the small print and an unrecognised name. Regardless though, he had the right to be buried as he wished and I would take care of things for him.
I skimmed through his will until I saw the familiar word: Interment. Next to this his lawyer had written:
After the mourning of my death has ceased, I wish to be ‚buried‘ in
the manner of the Nobel Peace Accord, and have my body consecrated
to the Stars and God Himself, in a pose befitting my role in the
development of The Nobel Peace Accord of 64.
There was more like this, but I’m sure you get the picture. I put down the notes on le’Strange and pulled back the sheet from Toetag 893046. It’s strange that in death, most people look just like everyone else. Some truly great people still wear a strange power on their faces in death, but this was not the case with le’Strange. He was an average looking, formerly bald man in his late fifty’s. I say ‚formerly‘ bald, in that he had obviously had very expensive implants that looked real enough, but when you work constantly with the deceased you soon pick up the difference between real and unreal.
I pulled the sheet back over him and looked at my watch. It was time for lunch and I went to the tall sinks to wash my hands. Pierre would have to wait another hour.
* * *
Two days later, le’Strange was ready to be interred. His pose was certainly heroic. I had had one of my assistants pose for the stance, and I worked with a series of photographs I had taken of her. Le’Strange now stood on a small concrete pedestal, one leg slightly higher than the other, resting on a smaller bump of concrete. His name had been stencilled in the wet cement as it set. He was looking vacantly into space and his right arm was bent in the air, as if he were shading his eyes. I was fairly happy with the results, and thought it pretty good for someone who hadn’t done it before. In fact, about the only modelling anyone had ever done was stiffening the body’s joints and attaching the cadaver to the coffin, to prevent the two coming apart.
We had added an anti-freeze compound to the skin, to save it freezing in the cold of space (and the air-con was still broken!). Gerry had told me that before the statue went outside, there was a small delegation of Politicians coming up to see him off. This occurs quite often, but with family. Le’Strange was the only real celebrity we had had though, and certainly the only Politician with enough sway to warrant an official send off. Mostly, people can’t afford the tickets to get up here, and instead opt to view the funeral through our video service.
So, the Politicians arrived and with them, as usual, were several members of the press. They filmed the service to a waiting, (and unexpectedly large) Earthside audience and after le’Strange was sent gently turning into Eternity, they stayed and toured our complex before heading back to Earth. And then I assumed that that was that and we could all go back to our work in the regular fashion. And so we did, for the next month or two.
* * *
„Hey, Elliot! Remember le’Strange?“ asked Gerry, calling loudly across the delivery dock to be heard over the whine of the hydro-jack.
„That French Politician we posed? What about him?“ I asked Gerry, as he arrived and stood in front of me.
„Well, it seems that this other Politician saw the whole thing and had his will amended to include a similar deal.“
„Yeah, and now he’s dead and the family want to have him done,“ said Gerry, „Will you do it?“
„Well, yeah, no problem. Hey,“ I added, smiling at Gerry,“ If this catches on, we’re gonna need more staff.“
„If this catches on, we’ll build a new wing,“ he said, smiling back as he handed me the papers and left. I briefly flicked through them and put the folder aside, not even considering the scope of what he had just said.
* * *
Soon after the burial of the second Politician we started getting calls about the service. This prompted us to construct a price list for different services in this line. Then, we had two more cases arrive for the service. A week after this we had four more people and soon we were getting around sixty to seventy cases a week. We began construction on a new wing to cope with this workload, and I noticed in trade news that other homes were starting to offer the service. This made little difference to our cases which were now coming in at the rate of two hundred a week. See, the ships came in once a week and delivered, on average, four hundred bodies at a time. That meant that the Poses were equal to the regular services! But it didn’t stop there! Two years after we had done the first Pose, we were handling over three hundred a week! We converted most of the old labs into new Pose labs, and were handling all sorts of different things.
People wanted to be posed with loved ones, or held in storage until loved ones died. People wanted to be placed into glass coffins. People wanted to be posed holding valuables of their lives; trees, tools, art, clothing, anything and everything. The one major difficulty we experienced was reconstructing people who had died violently…car accidents (rare), fires, murders (crime never died, unfortunately…some things never change) and the like.
The trouble began though, when a very rich rockstar had a very large final request.
* * *
It was in September, another Wednesday delivery, when I received the orders of New Arrivals. There was an extra large crate with the shipment, and I learned that it was something that one of the deceased aboard wished to be Posed with. It was a late model Halcien Streetcar, complete in every detail. Nothing had been removed to sell beforehand. In other words, it wasn’t just a poseable shell, it was a fully-functioning motor-car. We hydro-jacked it into the back docks, as it wouldn’t fit through the lab’s locks. This case would have to be posed and jettisoned from the Main Docking Gate. That wouldn’t really be a problem, it just meant that all on the project would have to wear oxygen during the jettison.
The Main Docking Gate was quite enormous. It stood about eight metres tall, by sixteen metres wide and was designed to accommodate the airlock doors of the delivery ships. It was quite lovely to look out and see the awesome view of the Earth that the Gate afforded, but unfortunately it was rarely opened whenever a ship wasn’t in. As it opened straight on to space and had no airlock of it’s own, it just wasn’t practical to open it at any time. It had small windows set in it to guide the delivery ships in, but even this was mostly done by computers. Generally, we had to settle for the view of space or Earth, seen through the Major Recreation room or our own tiny bedroom windows.
So, in the days that ensued, I personally worked on the project with two assistants. The car was unpacked and the rockstar, named Jok McRock – a stage name, I assume – was placed in the front seat, behind the wheel. (Although computers drive the cars on Earth these days, the wheel, as everyone knows, was kept as a pretence to being in control.) He had died of a drug overdose (some things never change) and so we had to employ a little bit of repair to the sunken face. Nevertheless, in three days he was ready and in his favourite car, preparing to drive off at a snail’s pace through the Galaxy for all time. As expected, the press were there to film the end and we lent them thermal suits and oxygen. It was quite a beautiful funeral, as all other funerals were on the other side of our station, facing away from Earth. Everything went off without a hitch and Jok McRock was sent into space, staring at an invisible road and driving straight down it.
* * *
One thing, though, became a problem in the days to come. It appeared that McRock’s car was too heavy to escape orbit and he was left spinning for several days around our world. This wouldn’t pose much of a problem, ordinarily, as there are thousands of satellites whizzing about up there; but all those satellites have engines that are designed to hold orbit, and this satellite didn’t. After six days, he was getting perilously close to the upper atmosphere and there was a danger that he may even be dragged down to Earth! This wouldn’t do of course, so the world leaders met via vidöööeophone to converse about what could be done. They were all for shooting him down out of orbit and letting the smaller parts of the car burn up as they fell to Earth. A massive public outcry arose from his legions of fans, who swore that this was a desecration and mustn’t be allowed! Suddenly everyone was talking about this and formulating opinions, and all the while Jok McRock got closer to Earth. And, as it turned out, by the time anyone could agree on a plan, it was too late.
McRock’s car was made of a very dense and valuable alloy that burned only at extremely high temperatures. His car attained planet fall on October 12th. As it hurtled through the upper atmosphere it reached the speed of eighteen hundred kilometres per hour and began to burn, (McRock himself had burned up, practically the first few moments the car hit the atmosphere.) As the car sped toward Earth, catastrophe occurred.
McRock’s car collided with a full passenger aircraft, carrying 1337 passengers and exploded on impact. The plane was virtually destroyed in the explosion and, naturally, there were no survivors. In fact, there were never any body parts recovered from the sparse wreckage at all, and it was concluded, and not without reason, that all of the passengers were killed. What was just as astounding, though, was the fact that this occurred over land, which amassed just one-fifteenth of the surface of the Earth.
* * *
This changed everything for us at Still Life Pty Ltd. There were investigations and enquiries. There were interviews and accusations. But, in the end, Still Life was cleared of any blame, as there were no laws that could condemn us in this arena. Soon after this, there were laws created and the most important of these was that ‚Posing in Death‘, or ‚The le’Strange,‘ was outlawed. From that point on, there could be no more Poses, save Coffins and ashes and urns. No more of le’Strange’s curious legacy, that had swept like wildfire through the population of Earth. And, like most fads, it was soon forgotten in lieu of the next one. As swiftly as it had begun, it was over. We were left with too much room in our new Posing wing, and it was soon closed off. Gerry had been visibly shaken by the whole ordeal, but still struggled through his work. Me too.
Still… we survived the aftermath of enquiries, but our formerly excellent reputation as a home was severely damaged. In the two remaining years before Still Life Pty Ltd closed the Main Gate for good, Gerry and I struggled to keep the place going. We lost lots of money, until it was hopeless. Thankfully, we had a Retirement Fund (that barely survived); and at least all of our employees got 54% of what they originally would have received.
It was not only those 1337 passengers that died that day, I have often reflected, but Still Life Pty Ltd, as well as my friend Gerry, who killed himself just seven months into his (early) retirement. His suicide note stated that he had always felt the burden of guilt for those 1337 and could not forgive himself. After he died, I personally made the trip to the region in Africa where the slight remains of the crash were found and scattered his ashes there. I hope that helped my friend to find the peace he lost in life, for I know all too well how he felt. I had truly loved my career, and now it was all gone. 1337 people had died for nothing more than some punk’s vanity and a grievously thoughtless mistake on my part. I just hadn’t even considered the fact that we were facing the Earth during McRock’s burial. There was no way he could have escaped orbit, and I blamed myself for not having thought this through.
Incidentally, Jok McRock’s career had never been better. He sold over four million copies of his last Disk, 1.3 million of those within eight weeks of the Crash.
Some things never change.
(Transcript above was found with the body of Elliot Rengradier, who was found hanging from a heating pipe in his small one room apartment. His estate paid for his cremation, but funds did not allow for his ashes to be scattered on the Moon. Instead, they were scattered over the Crashsite in Africa with those of his former friend.)