“Welcome to the Memento Mori Museum, lovingly tour-guided by our docent EM(ily), who uploaded two short years ago! Come see caskets, coffins, wreaths and other not-so-ancient paraphernalia, along with an interactive exhibit where you can climb inside! JUST KIDDING! No, we’re not. Seriously, try it.
Here at THE DEATH MUSEUM (LOL), passing away is passé!”
– MentAds promotion narrated by EMil, uploaded 2060
* * * * * * * * *
FI-NAL-LY! After two long months of waiting, we’re on the froolest field trip EVVA.
Hang on. Did that MentAds EM blaring from the sign outside – and inside my mind – call this place the Death Museum? I blink and adjust the tiny implant receiver at the back of my skull. EM’s – people who have uploaded themselves to ElysiuM – usually work great, but this one might be glitching. I listen as xe, whoever xe is, repeats the announcement and gets it right this time.
Still, “Death Museum” sounds a lot frooler than whatever this place’s real name is.
What? You’ve never heard “frool?” You must be one of the old folks who platformed – er, was born – before we started using it. It means “freaky” and “cool” at the same time. Life is frool. Our USB implants are frool. EM’s are the froolest of all. I can’t wait to be one. Never mind the other part.
“Are you all right?”
I jump a mile. Our teacher EMeritus has caught me spacing again. Falling behind the rest of our class is no problem, but being called out is. “Yeah,” I think and blink. I know xe can hear me, even though xis ears aren’t involved. EM’s speak telepathically, which I think is fanto.
You haven’t heard “fanto” either? “Fantastic,” as anyone over 20 says.
Anyway, I head on into the Death Museum, bringing up the rear. The calling of the MentAds EM fades into the space between outside and inside. At the front kiosk, we take out our implants and insert them one by one. That allows us to download the tour guide program. What’s xir name again? EMily? I think I heard the announcer call xir that before it glitched. Nice name. Pretty. Not like mine.
Behind me, Lan the Lagger yawns and stares up at the ceiling. Then he shudders.
So do I. When EM’s give you a shock, it is one. I’m lucky I got a break a few minutes ago.
“Good morning,” says the program, xir voice as pretty as xir name. “I’m EMily, and I’ll be your guide at the Memento Mori Museum. Or, as my friend EMil calls it, the Death Museum.”
So I heard right. That means other kids did, too. That way I’m not imbie. Imbalanced.
EMily laughs and says, “No need to be freepy here. Death is part of life, although we don’t commemorate it like we used to. We upload, cremate, scatter. Done. In the old days…” She trails off. “It used to be a lot more complicated. Let’s move into our first exhibit.”
Now, you may ask: Why are a bunch of fourth graders going through a museum by themselves? Where’s the “adult supervision?” That’s my grandparents’ beef about our school, and my parents’ too. See, they had living teachers then, not teacher EM’s. EM’s are better. They don’t get sick or, you know, even though I wish mine could sometimes. I’d better not think that too loud.
The room we go into isn’t so much a room as an – auditorium? No, not big enough. We’re bathed in pink light, making our gray one-piece uniforms look black. Padded chairs are to the left and right, with an aisle down the middle. At the front sits a long…padded box?…made out of metal.
“Welcome to the Funeral Parlor. Not so long ago, we used these to honor those who passed before EM technology became available. They couldn’t upload to ElysiuM, so their consciousness was lost forever. Their loved ones held special events called funerals or memorial services, where they could come together and remember the person who died.”
Remember. For the first time EVVA, that word sounds horro to me. I remember my name’s Praxis. I remember two plus two is four. How can you remember a whole person, spesh one who’s not an EM? Why would you even want to, if it makes you sad they can’t come back?
“Please proceed down the aisle to the padded metal box at the front.”
We form a line and do that. Our teacher EM is staying quiet. So far, so good.
“This is a casket, where the dead person would lie. Visitors would come and see them at the funeral or memorial service. Sometimes the casket would be closed, sometimes open. The point was to say goodbye, or as your grandparents might say, pay your respects.”
Hmm. Geema and Geepa were old, but not that old.
A tightness in my skull, like a headache. I’d gotten a shock, or at least a mini-tremor. Yikerz!
“Others were laid in coffins, which are tapered at the head and base instead of rectangular. After the service was over, they would be interred, or buried in cemeteries.”
We’ve heard of those before. They’re wasteful and take up a lot of land.
“Mandatory cremation and EM technology erased the need for all these things, and the need to grieve as well. See the flowers?” We nodded. “They’re biodegradable plastic, but people often put real flowers on the graves of those they loved and missed.”
Sad. So sad. All because they couldn’t invent immortality fast enough. I sniff back a tear.
“Any comments so far? Appropriate ones, please. You’re on hive broadcast.”
“Why are the lights pink?” asks Lan the Lagger. “Freepy.” I see him tremble once more.
“That’s actually a good question. Living people have a pink color to their skin, because blood is circulating through their bodies. When a person dies, gravity pulls that blood to the lowest point, draining it away from the surface of their skin. Professionals called funeral directors used a variety of ways to make the dead look alive, including makeup with pink tints and pink lighting in their viewing parlors. I’ll mention another tactic later. Now that you’ve viewed the casket, please exit out the rear doors into the reception area.”
When we do, I stand stock-still. Faces and names all over the place, in guest books and on poster boards and on presentation slides like Geema and Geepa made when they worked. All this space, used to remember. That word makes me shiver again. Good thing I’ll never have to.
I shut my eyes – no feels, no feels – and follow my class into a room that’s dead cold.
That’s not a joke. Imagine walking into a fridge and having the door close behind you.
Inside it is glaring white light and a mannequin lying on a metal table. Surgical tools. Strange medical equipment that I’ve never seen. I know because I had surgery once, to get my USB port in.
“Now, then,” EMily says. “This is the embalming room. At the Memento Mori Museum, we try to make your experience of learning about death as comfortable as possible. So, if you would like to hear the basics of embalming in detail, think DETAILS. If not? NO DETAILS.”
Guess what pops in my head before I even think about it?
“You chose DETAILS. Are you sure, Student Praxis? Please respond YES or NO.”
The other kids say I’m imbie, that I feel too much, so I square my shoulders and think, “Yes.”
“Very well. Before the full embalming or cosmetic processes can begin, the body is washed in a disinfectant solution and the limbs are massaged and manipulated to relieve rigor mortis – a stiffening of the joints and muscles after death. Any facial hair is shaved off, unless the person who died wore facial hair. Shall I continue? Please respond YES or NO.”
So far, nothing’s been that freepy or gweird – gross and weird. “Yes.”
“Next comes the setting of the facial features. The face and muscles of a dead person relax to their utmost point, so this requires a surgical procedure. Their eyes are closed, often using skin glue and/or plastic flesh-colored oval-shaped ‘eye caps’ that sit on the eye and secure the eyelid in place. The mouth is closed and the lower jaw is secured, either by sewing or wires. If the jaw is sewn shut, suture string is threaded through the lower jaw below the gums, up and through the gums of the top front teeth, into the right or left nostril, through the nose bone – which is called the septum – into the other nostril, and back down into the mouth. Then the two ends of suture string are tied together. If the jaw is wired shut, a tool called a needle injector is often used to insert a piece of wire anchored to a needle into the upper and lower jaws. The wires are tied together to close the mouth securely. Once the jaw has been secured, the mouth can be manipulated into the desired arrangement.”
Eye caps. Suture. Lower jaw. Septum. Wire. Desired arrangement. I swallow hard.
“Before I proceed further, I want to warn you of more graphic content. YES or NO?”
I shout NO, if thoughts can be shouted. I’m freezing, so why are my palms sweaty?
“I’m sorry for upsetting you. Why don’t we leave this area and go outside, into the model cemetery? The weather is a balmy 76 degrees on this 31st of October.”
“I will, but I have to pee. Bad.”
“You’ll find facilities back in the reception area, down the hall on your right.”
I can’t get out of there fast enough. The goosebumps on my arms and legs begin to flatten as I bolt for the unisex restroom. I slam the stall door and explode like a volcano in the nick of time. On the heels of my relief is another thought: “Death is horro. I’m glad we never do that anymore.”
“Really?” says the tour guide’s voice in my mind. “So I thought at first.”
My whole body clenches like a fist. “EMily?”
“I thought I’d be a god. Powerful and all-knowing. Instead, I’m doing this.” She pauses, her voice full of regret. “Have you ever pondered my nature, Student Praxis? What am I?”
“You’re an EM,” I say out loud. I’m petro by the sound of my own voice.
“Yes. An emulation of consciousness. I’m not dead. Nor am I alive. I’m a meme. I can copy myself and edit my own source code as desired – but not beyond the parameters of this Museum. I have total self-control, until the Board of Trustees says I’m out of control.”
The goosebumps return. “Are you glitching?” I reach for my implant port. My hand freezes.
“I didn’t want to be remembered after death. I wanted to live forever, but do you know how long eternity is? No one does. That’s the one mercy life grants us, but the end of life and the beginning of EMulation are both cruel. Someday you’ll have to choose. I chose wrong.”
I get off the toilet and zip my uniform fast. When I try to unplug my USB, I freeze again.
“You may think I’m experiencing a glitch, but you’re mistaken. Can you hear me? I know you can. I’d like to prove to you what the EMTechs won’t. Close your eyes and listen.”
At the edge of hearing, a sound like a clock and a heartbeat. Tick-tick. Pulse-pulse. Tick-tick.
I fly out of the bathroom, dash through the reception area, into the funeral parlor.
Into the casket. As difficult as it is, I pull and slam the lid down.
My teacher EM finally says something, shouts it: PRAXIS 0964-38-B? WHERE ARE YOU?
Tick-tick. Pulse-pulse. Tick-tick. Tick-tick. Pulse-pulse. Tick-tick.
I freeze voluntarily this time. I’m not coming out. Not until I’m well and truly DEAD.
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