an article by Barrington J. Bayley



   Yes, well death, of course, or perhaps Death, or even D-E-A-T-H, is a subject close to my heart, I being one of those people who generally feel that life is not quite worth the trouble, not quite the full two bob, and occasionally I have envied my elder brother who had the good fortune to be strangled by his own umbilical cord, or so I’m told. But why so gloomy, old chap, I hear you saying, after all you haven’t got long to go. Indeed sir, indeed I have not. And that leads me to ponder my funeral arrangements. Increasingly in the modern world, funerals are likely to be conducted by the deceased. Ah yes, and so I imagine friends and relatives gathering and taking their places (with the absence of my daughter, who has given me advance notice that she will be far too busy to bother with such mediaeval nonsense), their emotions worked on by solemn, sonorious music shot through with hints of passion and uplift – composed by myself, of course – and then, after a trailing, floating chord, there suddenly appears on the large monitor screen the face of the dead man, myself, to deliver my taped valediction. In it I shall remind those in my captive audience of the transience of life, impressing upon them their own mortality, something along the lines of ‘You who still breathe the air and feel the sunlight upon your faces, remember that none of you knows that he will see tomorrow, and the time is brief before you find the oblivion in which I now rest...’ What a pity one cannot be there to see it, though I believe there have been those curious enough to arrange even that, faking their deaths and attending the subsequent ceremony. Maybe that is a better arrangement? Paying one’s respects to the soon-to-be-deceased, rather than to one just gone? I do feel that the undignified and bizarre part of the proceeding is holding it in the presence of the corpse. It’s a bit like holding a public ceremony over the disposal of one’s dung.
    So what is death?
    Has it ever struck you that most writers of parallel-world novels have got one itsy-bitsy little detail wrong? Usually the alternate Earths have different histories but throng with the people we know, though living different lives – Hitler is a bicycle mechanic, Einstein is a dictator, and so on. But that simply couldn’t happen. To rehearse what has often been pointed out, the pre-meeting odds against the arising of any individual are stupendous. First of all the parents have got to meet, and as we know most people in the world never get to know of one another’s existence. Then they have got to mate on a particular day when a specific ovum has been released by mother, and of the huge number of sperm cells made available for ejaculation by father’s testicles that day, one specific sperm cell has got to penetrate the ovum first. Once that is done the genes from the respective germ cells have got to combine at random in our own particular permutation, about like shuffling a pack of cards and having them come out in numbered sequence suit by suit.
    It is astonishing that I am here, especially as I have never won a lottery in my life.
    On the other hand, historical processes are large-scale and perhaps don’t depend much on individuals. There is something to be said for the argument that history throws up individual roles and shapes candidates to fill them. A parallel Earth might be almost indistinguishable from our own in its general features. But if it varied the tiniest in its small-grain resolution, it would be populated by an entirely different set of people.
    So what is death? That’s easy. Death is all the people who once existed but now don’t, death is all the people who will exist but don’t exist yet, but most of all, death is the vastly greater number of people who never will have existed.
    Should we feel sorry for them?
    Not unless you think there is some immaterial ‘store’ of potential people, only a tiny proportion of whom get expressed into the air and the sunlight. (And not, of course, if you think there is an infinite number of parallel worlds in which every possible person gets expressed somewhere.) Death, really, doesn’t exist. Life exists, but death doesn’t. It’s one of those poetical misconceptions, like love, something else people get anguished about.
    But enough of morbidity. Let us not be negative. Instead we should be concentrating on the exciting issues of today’s world. For instance, why hasn’t the EEC declared a decimalised calendar? The old one is far too arbitrary, much too unscientific. We could have a year of ten months, each of a regular 4x10 days, each day divided into 10 hours. Of course, this means that we shall have a day consisting of 0.913 planetary rotations. But with our quartz watches and computers and stuff, why that isn’t going to be any problem at all.
    Or what about the fascinating phenomenon of synchronicity? Do you know that there are forty-eight houses on my side of the street, and I live at number forty-eight!
   Can that be a coincidence?
    I – think – not.

copyright 2000, Barrington J. Bayley
previously published in "Arrows of Desire"

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