I hate working the night shift at the morgue because corpses won’t leave me alone.
The human brain can still “think” for five to seven days after death, given a temperature range of 35-48 degrees Fahrenheit and assuming there has been no significant head trauma. Post-mortem brain waves were discovered 12 years ago, but it took a decade to learn how to tap into the deceased’s neuro-system and translate the activity into comprehensible language. Dead folks no longer possess the five senses, so computers must convert their subliminal neural energy into auditory signals the operator can decipher and then transfigure return communications into bioelectric impulses for the deceased. This involves some 1200 sensors and stimulators in composite helmets for the corpse and technician. To me the apparatus seems more magic than science, but it works.
Morticians scan all of the newly departed, who often carp about what clothes to wear in the casket; how the hair, manicure, and makeup should be done; which is their good side (the homely of both sexes are the worst for expecting beautification); the coffin that’s right for their personality; who should deliver the eulogy. Sometimes they want to be cremated after the family has spent $18,000 making burial arrangements. Dead folks can object to more or less everything, including death itself.
My job as a supervising mortician was almost better when corpses kept their ideas to themselves and I could simply help get them ready for the casket, but if a body turns nastily annoying, I just unplug the translator and do things my way. Stiffs can’t file a complaint, so when in doubt, it’s best to follow the next-of-kin’s instructions and/or use my own judgment. The dead have no legal rights and can’t be represented by lawyers; otherwise, we’d probably never get anybody underground until attorneys burned through the estate trying to carry out erratic last wishes from a fading brain. Besides, the post-mortem decoders are so intricate and expensive that only trained undertakers, police departments, or elite research labs have access anyway; and funeral parlors must please the living, not the dead. Surviving spouses, parents, and/or adult children decide on what services to purchase.
Direct communications between relatives and cadavers were quickly outlawed—early attempts at post-mortem family conferences often turned caustic because dead folks may harbor long-held resentments or secrets that should be buried with them—so the translating mortician has a lot of power about what is filtered between the deceased and the living. We can soften questions and responses, withhold information about affairs, or maybe even coax hostile corpses or survivors toward a kind of détente. New morticians now receive mandatory training in post-mortem diplomacy.
The CIA tried to use the decoders on dead spies and terrorists, but you can’t beat information out of a corpse. “He” or “she” can’t feel pain and doesn’t generally care about contemporary threats or government espionage. The police, on the other hand, frequently receive details from victims about their murders that lead to speedy arrests and convictions. Homicide rates in industrialized nations dropped 40% after introduction of neuro translators. Still, many murders are crimes of passion or ideology, unaffected by fears of punishment, so there’s probably no way to lower the rate further via the decoders, but at least law enforcement is pretty quick to get killers off the streets. On the downside, some “pros” have learned to mangle the victim’s brain enough to disable post-mortem revelations.
Despite the downsides, I enjoy talking with some of the friendlier bodies, especially about life, whether they believe in heaven or hell, or what they would do differently if they were 20 again. Many are thoughtful and soothing and wise, but I wonder if they hold back bits of knowledge acquired since dying. I’m pretty sure the dead are keeping secrets.
That said, some corpses are about as subtle as Henry VIII and seem to believe that white lights and mist bestow absolute authority. If they get too abusive, I disconnect and roll them into the refrigerator to cool down. They can’t even cry about it. For a couple neo-fascists who wanted to sing the praises of hate and Hitler, I considered microwaving their brains but restrained myself—believe me; some stiffs really are better off dead. Executing a corpse is a little over the top for me, so I just move them to the cooler for silent harangues.
Then there are others who don’t want to bother with talk-talk. One 62-year-old woman was paralyzed from the waist down at 20 when hit by a drunk driver and later developed rheumatoid arthritis in her hands; she died from an “accidental” overdose of painkillers and alcohol. When I plugged her into the translator, she said, “I mean no offense, but please leave me alone to enjoy a week without pain, which is all I’ve wanted for 42 years. So now I can float through the universe without discomfort or desire or Demerol, and I plan to enjoy every second of it, uninterrupted, until my brain quits completely. Over and out.” She never responded to any questions after that, and her P-M brain waves shifted to a Zen-like alpha-theta pattern. I left her alone but monitored the translator in case she changed her mind. Peculiarly, her cold-wave neural output ended at a single moment on day six; it typically flutters for several hours before flat lining, and I’m starting to believe that the deceased have limited control over their shutdown. If you ask me, Ms. Paralytic Silence found something nice in the afterlife (better than talking with me) and latched onto it.
A centenarian workaholic billionaire, with fine gentility, asked if I would read Tom Sawyer to him before his post-mortem functions ended. “I want to discover the profits of childhood,” he said. I liked him immediately. Anyway, because the deceased can’t hear auditory sounds and I didn’t have the time to “speak” an entire book via the translator, with advice from my techno-geek girlfriend, I improvised a patch job to play a digital recording of Twain’s book through his decoder helmet. When I tested the opening pages and asked if it worked, the old man said, “Aunt Polly is a little loud, but the jam tastes great. Notch down the volume, tune up the treble, and let her run.” And I did. When the recording was finished, my billionaire buddy said he planned to become Becky Thatcher in 1852, thanked me, and signed off almost as abruptly as Ms. Silence but there were several noticeable changes in the neuro-electrical patterns, especially around the hypothalamic area, as if he might have actually changed identities. Then the translator delivered a mild electric surge through my connector-helmet just before the old man clicked into extinction. A little disconcerting at first, but I soon felt an incredibly durable euphoria that lasted two days. I think the old man somehow did this as a thank you.
There was one especially brutalized victim, Matt, who visited my table. Well, his head did, and we talked for hours. The police never found the body, and the victim didn’t know where it was buried, but they did arrest the two lunatics who killed him. They were high on who knows what, Matt was gay, so what other reason did they need? Despite having his body dismembered and carted off to Neverland, Matt is not angry. A little sad because he left behind a husband who had to suffer the demise of a spouse, but Matt himself? The guy is Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Albert Schweitzer in one braincase. He is forgiving and smart. I told him that I was pissed about what happened, even if he wasn’t, and hoped that the killers ended up with me on my table. I’d fry their brains slow, one section at a time, like shutting down HAL in 2001. Matt’s head replied, “People are basically good; just accept imperfection as part of the human journey. I see great things ahead. Trust me.”
I suggested that some imperfections deserve an acidic torture chamber. He merely commented that he’d already experienced that kind of treatment and could not recommend it. “Besides,” said Matt, “I was deader in the closet than out, even if coming out ultimately led to my murder. The greatest risk is hiding from oneself. Tell my husband that I loved him from the moment we met, and it is criminal that I tried so desperately not to. Thank God, I failed in this effort.”
I assured him that I was listening, and Matt’s severed head, with his curly red-hair cropped at half an inch, talked for 11 days, the longest post-mortem function on record. The family waited three months for Matt’s funeral because they wanted to find the rest of him, but the murderers had been so inebriated during their crime that they couldn’t remember where the parts were buried. Finally, after three months, they put Matt’s head in cryostorage, hoping that someday he could be reunited with everything from the neck down.
A few bodies come in that are technically brain dead because of cranial injury: auto accidents, electrocution, blunt-force trauma, high fever, stroke. But in some instances, even when there should be no neurological function, electroencephalographic fragments survive. Mortality is strange, more so than I imagined before the translators. I thought dead was dead. But most of the deceased apparently don’t relish the nightfall. This might be related to lingering existential sensitivities or memory tracks, but I’m almost certain that there are multiple levels of spiritual transience that the living don’t understand. Not that I have enough science background to prove or disprove my hunches. But P-M brain functions were discovered only 12 years ago. What will we discover 12 years hence?
Take Julie Cerrillo, a woman who was beaten to death with a claw hammer by her husband. Her skull was smashed; the ooze from the parietal and occipital lobes resembled red oatmeal; but the frontal and temporal regions were undamaged, and she and I managed a conversation. Julie said her memory had suddenly become photographic, and she analyzed each moment of her life covering one week per second. “Looking back,” she said, “it was inevitable that my husband would kill me at the prescribed time, place, and manner.” She added, “One must be unfettered by dimensional orientations to see undistorted cosmic rhythms.”
Don’t ask me about “cosmic rhythms.” Don’t know what they are, and I don’t want to know about Julie’s so-called “inevitable death.” It messes with my notions of freewill.
Julie tried to explain: “There is discrete port-mortem knowledge, but because I can’t physically act in my lifeless form, I must invent another that can.” She paused briefly. “Invent isn’t the right word. Alternate forms are and were always available; I just couldn’t see them before dying.”
I worried that the brain trauma corrupted our conversation, but her certainty and optimism were contagious. I asked if I could do anything for her, and she asked whether the decoder might be patched into the internet because she wanted to explore the world, something her husband never permitted. Again with my geek-love’s help, I did my best jury-rig a web connection without knowing for sure whether Julie actually got out of the mortuary. Four weeks later it was obvious that she did because I received a $25,000 check from MIT for “consulting services” along with a thank-you note to me and “Julie Pneumonic” for remotely increasing efficiency in their operational and telecommunications networks. The campus energy savings alone for the next two years would approach six figures. The FBI also praised Julie and me via email for helping to solve a cold case by flagging lost evidentiary computer files.
Julie’s recorded P-M functions ended after only four days, but I suspect she’s still out there, traveling through circuits or on light waves to exotic destinations. MIT even offered me a job for being so brilliant with computers. What a laugh. Without Julie, I’m just a sympathetic Luddite mortician who has trouble grasping all the functions on her smartphone.
There have been 631 people on my tables since the translators became operational. Upgrades are due in six months, and rumors suggest that the new equipment might be able to produce holographic images. I’m not sure society needs this, but it might be interesting to see what corpses see.
Sure, some bodies are crusty and lack manners, but they’re easy to unplug. Most are beyond animosity, hard to offend, and seem content to enjoy a few final days of brain activity. Many have shown me great charity and sympathy and wisdom. I almost look forward to my own post-mortem conversations and insights, and I am certainly no longer afraid. Metastasized breast cancer is taking me down that road sooner than planned, maybe another 18 months.
I wonder what I’ll discover during my tenure on a stainless steel table with no physical limitations or desires or chemo. There should be five to seven days to find out, and if my gracious predecessors are correct, the wonder might stretch into a contemplative and experiential universe without end.
Claudine Griggs earned an MA in English at Cal Poly, Pomona, and has published three books about trans-issues. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in many journals, and “Helping Hand” was the basis for an episode in Netflix’s “Love, Death & Robots.” Claudine’s novel Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was released on June 1, 2020. Visit: claudinegriggs.com