After the End - Stories of Life After the Apocalypse by Cora Buhlert by Cora Buhlert - Read Online

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After the End - Stories of Life After the Apocalypse - Cora Buhlert

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Funeral Rites

We bury our dead at sea. It’s what we’ve always done. We place their bodies into lead-lined coffins and seal the lids tight. Then we step into our suits and line up at the airlock, the entire funeral procession. The priest — one Father MacIlhenny, a part-timer like all our spiritual leaders and a maintenance tech in his other job — goes first, then the six pall bearers bearing the coffin, then the deceased’s family and friends and finally anybody else who wishes to pay their respects.

We stand perfectly still in our suits, as the airlock floods, from the priest and the pall bearers with their load to the smallest of children in their kid-sized suits. Then, once the airlock is flooded, the outer hatch opens and the procession begins.

It’s a solemn procession, held in perfect silence, the gentle burbling and hissing of the scuba sets the only sound to be heard.

It’s always thus, except that one time, when we laid Antoine Devane to rest. For Antoine, always the contrarian, had insisted that music be piped into the suit-to-suit coms, jazz music of all things, since he insisted that was how his ancestors had been laid to rest, in a place called New Orleans, now long lost to us. Personally, I suspect Antoine just made it all up, because he happened to like jazz music.

We do not have to walk far. We never did. We only have to walk as far as the old cemetery that is directly adjacent to the colony on a ridge overlooking the Scofield trench.

And so it only takes a few minutes, until the headstones emerge from the deep sea gloom. The stones are weathered now due to exposure to the elements, not to mention hopelessly encrusted with barnacles.

But if you scraped off the barnacles, you could still make out the names of the pioneers, our parents and grandparents who founded the colony. You could also make out the symbols of the old surface religions engraved on the headstones, the Cross, the Star and the Crescent, the Star of David, the Nine-pointed Star, the Wheel of Dharma, the Torii, the Khanda, the Taijitu, the Faravahar, the Pentacle, the Aum symbol, the Medicine Wheel, the Hammer of Thor, the Angel Moroni and a few others, whose meanings are long forgotten.

We wind our way past the headstones of our ancestors until we reach the new grave that the work robots have excavated earlier today. There will be a headstone, too, eventually, a clean and new headstone marked with a name of the deceased and a religious symbol, if they so wish.

Though only a few of the more recent stones bear religious symbols and most of those that do mark the graves of the very old, pioneers who still remembered life on the surface. For it is hard to stick with beliefs developed in a completely different world.

Once we reach the graveside, only the priest, the pall bearers and the deceased’s family go on, while the rest of us linger back to give them room to grieve.

The pall bearers lower their burden onto the hydraulic platform that will sink it into the ground, while the priest takes his place at the head of the grave and the family positions itself at its foot.

The pall bearers step back, while the priest speaks a prayer or a blessing according to the wishes of the deceased and their family. Psalm Twenty-three is enduringly popular — the old words of the King James Bible, nearly five hundred years old at this point — as is the Kaddish. Though increasingly often, the words said are new, crafted by the deceased or their family to give a unique expression to their grief.

Alas, Dr. Helena Porter, whom we lay to rest today, was a traditionalist — one of the original founders of our colony and head of the sewage lab for half a century. And so Psalm Twenty-three it is. I listen to the priest reciting the psalm through the suit com, my lips moving in tune with the words I know so well.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…

When my time comes — though I hope I shall have a few years yet, for fifty-six is not old, not old enough to die, at any rate — I will not ask for a religious symbol to be placed on my headstone, though I will request Psalm Twenty-three to be recited by my graveside. Not because I believe in the god of my ancestors, for I do not. But I love the words, their melody, metric and poetry. King James, long lost monarch of the surface realm, clearly was on the something.

Today we have gathered here to bid farewell to Dr. Helena Porter, one of the original founders of our colony… the priest intones, as the coffin is lowered into the grave, …and to return her body to the Earth whence we all came…

Bullshit, Devi mutters through the com, though this time she at least remembered to adjust the settings, so that only I can hear her, rather than the entire colony, We did not come from the Earth. Well, maybe Helena did, but not me nor most of the others. And we sure as the hell that old fart probably still believes in won’t return there. The Earth is gone.

She stands beside me, slight and small even in her bulky suit. Behind her faceplate, her forehead is scrunched into a frown, the arrogance of youth etched onto her face.

Devi works — used to work — with Helena and me in the sewage lab. She’s been our assistant these past six months, a young girl straight out of school, assigned to us by the unknowable wisdom of the colony management for six months of work experience.

Like all the assistants we’ve had over the years, she’s snarky, insolent and believes herself destined for greater things. And like all our assistants, Helena promptly took her under her wing.

Devi’s term is up three weeks from now. I suppose she’ll leave then — they all do, cause no one wants to work with what is in essence, to quote Devi, shit and piss — and we… I will get yet another new assistant whom I’ll have to train. But though none of our assistants ever stayed on beyond their six months work placement term, a lot of them kept in touch with Helena and me. I see several of them here, come to lay Helena to rest.

Father McIlhenny, blessedly unaware that Devi thinks he’s an old fart, produces a sealed bag of dried sand from a utility pocket of his suit.

And so in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister Helena, and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…

Bubbles escape, as the bag is torn open, then fine sand trinkles down into the grave, until it lands on Helena’s coffin.

Oh please, this is just silly, Devi erupts, "Earth, ashes, dust, those are surface things. Even the sand is specifically gathered,