So, I’ve dealt with a lot of death and loss thanks to the career path I’ve chosen. Working in emergency services, from a family that has devoted itself to emergency services, I’ve always been keenly aware of just how fragile and fleeting life can be. The fact that I’m more than a little curious about the macabre and morbid doesn’t help matters either. But a terrifying thought occurred to me one night many years ago and has been in my head ever since. They say that when a man loses his head, the brain remains active for several seconds. But no one has ever been able to ask about or truly study this phenomenon because, I mean, no one comes back from that. So what if, when we die, our minds are the last of us to go. What if as we’re lying there, eyes staring unblinkingly open, we’re still fully cognizant of the fact that we are dead. Seeing, and hearing, and maybe even feeling all that is happening around us. Could there be a worse kind of hell to endure?
And, with that cheery thought in mind, please enjoy this little tale I like to call, One Last Hell.
They didn’t know. How could they? Even as I lay there, my eyes frozen open looking at the stained ceiling tiles, screaming internally because my lips and lungs would no longer cooperate, I knew they couldn’t begin to understand the sort of hell I’d entered. I could feel the cells in my body dying one by one, felt the unfortunate release of my bowels and the bile that had erupted up my throat to dribble weakly down the corners of my lips and over my chin. I’d felt the sudden cessation of my own heart as it thudded one final time and became silent. Then there was the rattle. God, how many times had I heard that terrible, croaking last breath over the years and continued on with my work as another body fell silent and still in a bed below me? How many times had I looked on, emotionless into those milky eyes and pronounced them dead? Were they like me? Were they still aware of all of this, screaming in voices that would never be strong enough to convulse the lungs or utter out a whisper of the horror thrust upon them?
I wondered how long this would last as my wife, my brother, and a handful of other grieving, secondary kin looked down into my eyes and wept. Their tears spilled onto my frozen face and into my eyes, the saline burning as I was unable to blink or rub it away. I wondered when I’d see that white light and hear the heavenly chorus. I hadn’t been a devout believer by any means, but I’d lived a good life and I’d tried to be a good man. As the local funeral director and his son covered my face with a bedsheet and hoisted me onto their gurney, I knew I was damned. Unceremoniously they thrust me into the back of the hearse. My head bounced, smacking hard against the bed I’d been strapped too.
“Jesus, Hank. Be careful.” One said to the other.
“Not like he felt that.” The other said, half laughing as he slammed the door.
Street lights flickered through the window, across the white sheets draped over my face in flashes of orange and white. From the front seat, the two men babbled on inanely about the start of football season, about what they’d seen on television the night before, and how they wanted to give the young girl from FedEx, the one who delivered to the funeral home, their own special package and laughed at the thought of defiling her in their own lackluster way. My head slapped against the gurney once more as we hit a speed bump then came to a stop at the funeral home.
The duo brought me into the mortuary with the same grace and tact they had used loading me into the hearse. The sheet slipped down the side of my cheek as they wheeled me to a stop under the fluorescent bulbs of another cheaply tiled, clinical looking ceiling with brown water stains to the left of the light fixture. They continued to go on about whatever personal nonsense was filling up their lives as they filed their papers and rummaged around the room.
“Go ahead and fire up the oven.” one said to the other. “Wife wants him cremated.”
My blood would have run cold at the thought if I weren’t already freezing on the table where they’d placed me.
“She doesn’t want a visitation?” The other asked.
She doesn’t want a visitation?!
“No. Said they’ll ‘celebrate his life’ when they get him back.”
There comes a point in any traumatic experience where shock sets in and a sort of peace washes over you. Fear accompanies the possibility of death but calm shepherds its certainty. I wanted to scream. I wanted to climb off the rack and run as if my life depended on it. But my life was done. Whatever this was, this personal hell I’d found myself in, it was nothing I could do anything about. I knew how this worked. They were going to load me into a small, flimsy wooden container and shove me into a giant oven. The heat and the flames would take nearly a day to reduce my body to ash and, given that my brain was solidly ensconced inside a thick, durable skull, I’d be aware of the searing pain and heat for hours to come before gradually drifting into nothing. Not that my other options were any more enticing.
Burial or donation, I’d be in hell either way. A traditional burial would have subjected me to the prowess and skill of the embalmer. Aspirators would slice into my arteries and drain every last ounce of blood from my body, replacing it with preservatives and fluids to prevent decomposition for years to come. My eyes and lips would be sewn shut, a valve screw up my ass to prevent gases from choking the gathered mourners out of the room. They’d lay me out like this for a day or so before burying me in total darkness for ages to come. There again, I could have been donated to the hospital as part of their medical program. A bunch of slack jawed, terrified students who had never seen a cadaver before would have spent weeks dissecting me, breaking and rending, and slicing apart my body to learn what no book would ever be able to teach them.
I am still here!
How could they know? How could anyone know? The dead are supposed to be dead. But there I was, staring at the ceiling as two clueless morticians prepared me for the flames. But they’d all know in time. They’d all experience the little hell that had been prepared for me, for them. I could only wonder, as the gurney rolled into the furnace room if my mind would slip before the fires consumed it, consumed me, or if my own terrifying awareness would remain until there was nothing left but ash? The door groaned open. At my feet a gust of hot air began to prick along my frozen flesh.
I guess it’s time to find out.