The twenty-first-century church has always been a mystery to me. In a world where so many other phenomena – such as melting poles and heavily polluted areas with millions of people living in them – pose real threats to mankind, there is still a group of people who insist on turning to religion for answers. It is as if they are blind to the fact that in the past two thousand years, the belief in a divine entity has caused more wars than it has caused peace. Even proud atheists find excuses to pay occasional visits to the buildings that house the hypocritical institution of Christianity.
Today, they’re mourning me. Their eyes are glassy, turned to the pastor at his lectern as he tells them what they most desire to hear. He is never completely gone; his spirit lives on in all of us. If any members of the audience had bothered to take a closer look at his face, though, they would probably see that he’s full of it. He no more wants me to return from the dead than he wants his God to start exercising His divine power. If His laws were actually valid, we’d all be sinners in need of punishment. I guess some would say that is exactly what happened to me. I don’t blame them, but I strongly disagree.
Life is random. Asking why things happened when or how they did never got me any answers. Like when I was five years old, I asked my mother why her cheekbone was purple and yellow and my father told me to mind my own business. Now they’re sitting in the front row, masking their appreciation of the grim show with downturned mouths and misty eyes. Death, unfortunately, does not grant you the ability to read minds, but I don’t need superhuman powers to know that it’s all just an act. At least this way I am of use to them. This way, I am more than just their rebellious offspring.
I’m the son who was supposed to be a daughter. Having had twin boys the first time around, my mother desperately wanted a little girl, and since my father had already made sure there would be boys to inherit his business, he gave in to her pleas. Traditional, I know, but true nonetheless. It wouldn’t have been so bad if all my failed mathematics tests and lack of interest in business hadn’t rendered me completely useless to the family shipping company. I spent a lot of time with my mother and eventually came to despise my father for the way he treated her, then started resenting her for staying with him regardless. I took my resentment and poured it into a fledgling blog, which was part of a school assignment, about how harmful my own father’s business was to the environment. What my writing lacked in statistics and biological theory, I made up for with hard-hitting punch lines. One of my classmates’ father was the editor of the regional newspaper, and my father paid him handsomely to kill a story about how the teenage son rebels against his family’s million-dollar business. The fact that he used his power to keep crucial knowledge from the people proved to me that he cared more about money and reputation than about his family. I haven’t had a remotely normal conversation with him since.
But now, for the first time ever, I stand higher in their regard than my brothers, Oliver and Sebastian. Publicity beats money in the game of social hierarchy, and I’m their golden ticket to the top, thanks to the journalist who is sitting in the back and documenting the whole thing. It doesn’t matter that I couldn’t care less about my family, because no one has ever caught me saying so on tape, and I’ve been careful not to bring it up in interviews, hoping that one day my parents would realize that there was a method to my madness. As far as I know, they still haven’t figured it out, but at least my death will now be mentioned in newspapers all over the country, and I get to see my brothers live with that for the rest of their lives. I hope they live very, very long lives.
Perhaps they can feel that I’m silently mocking them – or perhaps I’d just like to imagine they can – because they exchange glances, communicating in that non-verbal language I never learned to decipher, before rolling their eyes and sitting back against the stiff mahogany bench. Danielle, whose focus appears to be disturbed by their movement, elbows Sebastian’s side, but she’s not worthy of his attention. Nothing but money and his twin ever are.
But she is worthy of mine; I zoom in on her like a camera on a Hollywood actress. Her large, brown eyes are flooded, and tears are leaking from her lash line, meandering through the texture of her skin down to her chin, from which they fall freely into the rich, black velvet dress. Her foundation is breaking up, and the scarlet lipstick she has been forced to wear has smeared at the corners of her mouth. At any other time, she would have rolled with it, would have laughed and made an unconvincing impression of a clown.
Now is not the time, yet there is nothing I want more than for her to stand up from the uniform crowd, shed her black leather jacket, and start whirling around the room like she did when she was little. I could watch this for hours and never get tired of her high-pitched pleas for me to join. Almost one and a half decades later, her eyes stopped looking for me in those moments; instead, they would turn to Rasmus, who is now sitting at her side with one arm resting protectively around her shoulders.
I’ve always known – or at least suspected – they’d stick together despite my countless threats. In hindsight, I’m glad they didn’t listen to me. If they had, Dani would have been even more alone in her grief right now.
The pastor finishes his speech about life and death with, “In the end, God welcomes all His children into Paradise.” I find that offensive. I’d like to think that if religion was actually real, you’d be given a choice between heaven and hell. Clearly that choice – like the decision to celebrate my death in a church – has been made for me already. Too bad I’m stuck here, watching those sad, grey faces staring at the altar.
At the mention of his name, Rasmus stands up and approaches the podium. His shoulders are tense, but his glasses are riding low on the bridge of his nose, and his black shirt needs ironing, just as expected. I cannot for the life of me understand how he owns an iron but not an ironing board, but then again, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d bought that shirt solely for this occasion, because for as long as I’ve known him, I’ve only ever seen him in faded jeans and tees.
He clears his throat, attracting the stony-faced crowd’s attention. “Um,” he begins, scratching the back of his neck characteristically, “some of you may not know me, but I am … or rather, I was Simon’s roommate, and uh…” He glances at the casket, which looks more like the royal gardens than something that contains roadkill, and his jaw muscle jumps. “Uh… sorry, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. So maybe I should just start from the beginning?”
It is phrased as a question, albeit clearly a rhetorical one. My mother, thinking she is out of the spotlight with most of the spectators behind her, rolls her eyes conspiratorially at my father, who responds with an almost unnoticeable nod. I know what they’re thinking: This boy does not belong here! For once, they’re right, though not in their classist snobbishness. Rasmus does not fit into this setting. He’s too unimpaired, too normal in the best sense of the word.
Seemingly oblivious to the unappreciative glares, he starts chuckling, as if somebody has whispered a private joke in his ear. “The last day of the summer holidays, I came back to my dorm room and found someone making up the spare bed. He looked as if he hadn’t changed his all-black wardrobe since lip piercings and guyliner were a thing… those of you who knew him back then know what I’m talking about. It was pretty bizarre.” The comment makes an airy, collective gasp of laughter escape from the glum audience.
I, too, appreciate the comedic truth in the description. When I was thirteen, the “emo” wave came crashing over my world, dividing the population into two distinct groups: those who listened to alternative rock, wore black skinny jeans, had weird asymmetrical haircuts, and dreamed of snake-bite piercings, and those who did not. The latter group was the norm – the rest were outcasts, self-proclaimed freaks like my friends at school. By the time I became a high school freshman, the world had returned to normal, but I’d found that dressing in black and looking grim was an excellent way of setting myself apart from the crowd. I wanted to be different, and so I became the guy who never got over the rebellious phase. Somehow, the black attire survived all through high school and well into my first year of university.
“For the first two months or so, the only words we said to each other were hi and goodbye,” Rasmus reveals. “In fact, the exam week before Christmas was the first time we had an actual conversation. I returned to our room from the library at three in the morning, and he was sitting at his desk with a pen in his hand. The constant click-click, click-click was driving me crazy, so I asked him to stop. He said he’d stop clicking his pen if I’d quit smoking.” Again, laughter. “That’s when I realized he actually knew who I was because, until then, he’d never really seemed to notice me.”
He’s more right than he will ever know because I didn’t look at him all that much, and when I did, all I could think about was how big of an idiot he was. Judging from the unorganized pile of books on his desk, he was studying something in the field of natural sciences, yet he seemed to be doing all he could to damage his own body as well as the environment. I’d seen him hanging out under the bike stand half-roof with a cigarette in his mouth, and when he left campus, it was usually by car. With my environmental awareness still in a stage of fanatic awakening, I imagined we’d never be friends. We had nothing in common.
He glances uncertainly at his watch, as if he is expecting someone to tell him that time is up. “I told him my bad habits were none of his business. As you can probably imagine, he disagreed, saying how every source of pollution on the planet was everybody’s business. At first, I was unimpressed. I was majoring in Biology, and here was a pretentious History student telling me off for damaging the planet. What could he possibly know about that sort of thing?” There is a pause in which Oliver’s smirk is mirrored down to the smallest detail on Sebastian’s face. I want to punch them and their filthy business in the face. If Rasmus sees it, which I am sure he does, he makes no visible note of it. Instead, he moves on, “More than I thought, apparently. After the Christmas break, he returned with a haircut, colored clothes, and a mission to collect more supporters for Greenpeace. We bonded over a shared interest in aquatic ecosystems at the end of the second semester.”
He looks at the coffin, making a face. The audience in black might think it’s because the memories are painful, but I know that to be untrue. It’s an apology to me for lying. For not being brutally honest. Because while dying fish and oil leaks got the conversation started, what really sparked our friendship was our relationships with our fathers. One night when he was cursing at his Zoology and Evolution notes, he groaned that he would’ve never made it through Columbia. Intrigued, I asked what he meant, not expecting what he was about to tell me. Apparently, he had applied to the Ivy League university just for the hell of it and had been accepted. But, seeing as moving across the country and paying tuition would be rather expensive, he had opted for the less prestigious local university where education was free and he would not have to borrow the tuition money from his father.
Just like my own, his father had deep pockets, to the point where they seemed bottomless. But unlike with me and my father, his father was the source of betrayal whose actions had gotten him excluded from the family. When his father’s extramarital activities had resulted in a divorce a couple of years earlier, Rasmus had taken his mother’s side and asked his father to stay out of his life. To my knowledge, his father never made an effort to contact him after that.
I wish my father had done the same, but even now he is a constant cloud hanging over my head. Rasmus knows this, but he is also smarter than to insult someone at their own son’s funeral, which is why he filters the truth. No matter how entertaining it might’ve been to see my father squirm in front of an audience, Rasmus is proper enough to let another family’s issues remain unresolved in the face of death. I respect that.
The journalist takes notes, her hand not once standing still. She has a few brief quotes from the speech, then a note in the margin asking if Rasmus has it all in writing. Below is another series of words in struggling longhand: Loved – admired – huge turnout. The two adjectives, I’m guessing, are about me while the noun phrase refers to the number of people sitting on those cold benches. Just before Rasmus continues his trip down memory lane, she jots the following down, something that could not have been further from the truth: Laughter – remembered with joy. I wish my corpse could throw up. That would give her something to write about.
“Befriending Simon was a challenge and often took a little bit of work, but I’ve never regretted it, and I never will. He… um… he definitely had his opinions, and I think it’s safe to say that he was an acquired taste, but his enthusiasm and dedication to the things he believed in never ceased to amaze me. I think these were the qualities that made people listen to him and eventually join GEO after he left Greenpeace.” At the sound of that last word, a collective, inward cringe passes through the people on the mahogany benches. My family members – with the exception of Dani – look around uncomfortably. Even my more radical activist acquaintances in the back exchange glances. At least they haven’t gone running back to Greenpeace yet.
Throughout my second and third semesters at university, I volunteered for the world’s most well-known environmental organization and became a member of the local management group. However, as time passed and my responsibilities increased, I was asked to participate in those petty Let’s-protest-by-surrounding-a-factory-with-worked-up-students events. I refused, seeing as those might have been fruitful in the later part of the twentieth century but were no longer beneficial to our cause. While I, too, was disgusted by the mile-high columns of smoke coming out of those cold concrete chimneys, I found that the media attention from these little outings was usually not in our favor. So I quit and founded the Green Earth Organization – GEO for short – whose sole purpose was to put the environment back on the agenda without committing any crimes.
It was by no means a glamorous exit, and the approving smiles I usually got from fellow activists at the university turned into glares. The more I observed their strategies, the more enlightened I became. Most of those who swung by for an information session saw the common sense in trying to reduce pollution, but they were reluctant to participate in rallies and so-called peaceful protests. I went to all the meetings, then distributed my homemade pamphlets as the visitors left the room. The pamphlets contained a few arguments and easy ways to reduce pollution on an everyday basis, all of which Rasmus and I had worked out one late night where we’d both given up on studying.
One day, a girl – she introduced herself as Steph – stopped to read next to me instead of tossing the paper into the wrong trash bin around the corner. When she’d finished reading, she looked up at me as if she could see straight into my soul and said, “You, my friend, need a website.” She was right, but I was an idiot with technology and had no idea how to find a domain that didn’t have WordPress or some other lame provider’s name included in the URL. Turns out I didn’t need to know, though. She was majoring in Graphic Design and would be happy to help if I promised to give her credit for whatever she did. It was good publicity, she said. So she set it all up and somehow – I still don’t know how – managed to convince her techy friends to put a link to the new domain up on their own websites. Before long, the webpage had more than twenty thousand hits daily, and my mailbox was virtually on fire. The power of technology is a mystery to me, but unlike with modern-day Christianity, I truly believe it is the way forward.
“They say we’re defined by our actions,” Rasmus says when the shuffling and shifting in the seats has ended. “If we apply this to Simon, I’d say he was complicated at best and an asshole at worst.” My mother’s lips curve into a tight smile, and the corner of Dani’s mouth twitches as well, but the smiles do not look similar at all. “When he found out Danielle and I were dating, he gave me a black eye and told me to keep my filthy hands away from his sister.” Again, laughter. Even Dani has forgotten her grief for a moment; I’m glad she has Rasmus to help her deal with this because he seems good at it. “Obviously, he never apologized for it. But when I broke my leg a few weeks later, he slept in a chair by my hospital bed and did all my groceries for the next two months.”
I never apologized for punching him because I still don’t regret it. He’s older than me by a year, and Dani is younger than me by five, which means she was only sixteen at the time. It was just wrong. Also, Dani was the only member of my family I actually enjoyed spending time with, and Rasmus was like a brother to me. If they were going to dedicate all their time to one another, where would that leave me? Needless to say, they didn’t give two shits about what I thought, and my sister enjoyed rubbing their romance in my face at every given chance. Rasmus was more diplomatic about it, but since we’d recently moved out of the dorm room and into a three-bedroom apartment together, I suspect money was part of the reason why.
I suppose I could’ve backed out of my friendship with him, but I wasn’t ready for that. So I ignored him until some time later his mother called me from the hospital and asked if I would come. Seeing him lying pale-faced and in pain on the ghostly white bed reminded me that life was too short to hold grudges over something that didn’t really have anything to do with me, and so I convinced myself to get over the fact that he was screwing my sister in my own home.
It took some getting used to, but I got there eventually. Maybe because it was around the time Tina entered my life.
She’s here now, too; I wish she weren’t. She is sliding further and further down on the bench, flanked by her mother and a guy I’ve never seen before. She can’t hide from me. Not anymore. The only downside to this is that she doesn’t even know I’m watching her. Neither does the punk whose hand she is squeezing so hard that it looks as dead as my flesh inside that god-awful coffin. Seeing her reminds me of the time when I held her hand and thought she was the one. I was never really one for grand, emotional gestures or cheesy displays of affection, so she might not have known, but she was my first real love. At least until the night when I decided to be uncharacteristically romantic and pick her up after work.
I’d been looking forward to it all day. I was close to finishing my bachelor’s thesis, and I’d been invited to speak at a climate conference in the capital – my first public appearance on an international scene – so I thought we should celebrate. As a result, I’d bought a ridiculously expensive bouquet of flowers and reserved a table at the restaurant where we’d had our first date six months earlier. I walked into the clothing store where she worked, and one of her colleagues asked if I needed any help. When I told her I was waiting for Tina, she delivered the grim news: Tina was not even on the roster for that day and she had not taken an extra shift, either.
I didn’t know what to make of it, so, embarrassed, I left and called her. She picked up on the second ring, telling me she’d be off work in five minutes and then come over. For whatever reason, I let her believe everything was fine until she knocked on the apartment door forty-five minutes later and I told her what had happened. She didn’t try to deny lying but told me straight up that she’d met someone else. That night, I got so wasted that I made out with Steph’s lesbian best friend and asked her to marry me. I don’t even believe in marriage.
Rasmus eyes the casket suspiciously, as if he’s expecting me to return from the dead any moment now. “Despite his morally ambiguous actions, I’d still say Simon was a good person, and I’ll miss his sarcastic jokes and devilish smiles.”
In the following silence, any one of the hypocritical mourners could have easily recited the entire Apostle’s Creed if they’d known the words or bothered to look it up in the hymnal. Even I know the words, and I don’t even believe in Jesus Christ. What’s worse, I’ve known them since my confirmation at thirteen. The pastor who’s leading this black ceremony was the one who made damn sure all the words were efficiently stuck in my brain for all eternity. I may have been getting on his nerves during those preparatory classes; I distinctly remember being dismissed for telling the pastor he was making me swear an oath that was impossible to live by.
No one starts reciting, and silence triumphs for another gut-wrenching moment. I’m so glad I don’t have to face any of these people again – maybe with the exception of Rasmus and Danielle – because this is a nightmare. The pastor has asked if anybody wants to follow Rasmus’s eulogy, and although I know my father has prepared a long, collected speech – I saw him stuffing the neatly folded papers into his pocket before the service – of how determined and driven I was in life, he doesn’t say anything. If I’m being serious, I don’t blame him, because Rasmus has added an element of humanity to their “Simon discourse” that neither of my parents believe in. It’s easier for them to get through this if I am exactly the person they think I am, and so they maintain their silence.
The journalist scribbles something in her notebook, and I struggle to make sense of the squiggly, though standardized, shorthand. End – grief extensive – no one talks. If my hands had not been laid neatly on top of each other inside the coffin, I would have torn the page out, folded it into a paper plane and sent it flying down the aisle for everyone to see – and then feel guilty for wasting paper in a world where deforestation is all too real. But how wicked would that be – to be able to attend one’s own funeral in the flesh? Not in some pretentious The Fault in Our Stars way where the cancer patient hosts his own mock funeral to ensure that his friends’ eulogies are on point. The real deal!
The pastor, realizing that he can say nothing more that will not have the same result, leads the group in prayer and song, and then the service is over. As the men in my family, my brothers, my father, my grandfather, two uncles, hoist the casket onto their shoulders, white flower petals trail after them along the church floor. They march out of the room, tall as the mahogany trees the lacquered coffin is made of.
Everybody else follows.
A hole has been prepared for me. A deep and dark one; I wouldn’t be surprised if my parents were hoping that if they dug deep enough, I’d end up in hell and all their troubles would be buried with me. Words are said – some Christian bullshit about earth and revival – and then they throw soil into the grave. When everybody’s thrown a handful, larger machinery takes over, and I half expect it to be a special moment when the last trace of depth disappears and the coffin is indefinitely buried.
And my body is buried.
But there is nothing extraordinary about the moment. The sky remains a taunting shade of cornflower blue, and the grass is in the same late-summer stage of dehydration as it was on the day I died. The graveyard with its little yew-hedged cubicles seems no less appealing of a place than any other. Beyond its borders lie fields that politicians claim feed the population, and I know I should be disgusted at the thought of all the pesticides my dead body will be swimming in. But I no longer care.
Environmentalism is for the living. The truly living. The worst thing climate changes and pollution can do to me is severely disfigure my body – and a truck took an admirable stab at that about a week ago. Rasmus was right in a part of his speech that he never said out loud: Simon’s death was a tragic accident, but I’m sure he would at least have appreciated the comedy of a truck loaded with solar panels killing a die-hard environmentalist.
He knows me better than anyone else. Better than Dani, even. And definitely better than those who put this ridiculous acting exercise together in order to say a “proper goodbye.” Part of me hoped that at least their faith would be rewarded and I would be wrong in my cynicism. Apparently, this is all I get. No stairway to heaven with choirs of angels serenading me as I climb. No infernal punishment to cleanse my filthy, heathen soul. Not even tunnel vision with a bright, alluring light at the end. Instead, I get to watch the world as it is with no chance of altering it for the better or the worse.
I get to watch as people offer their condolences to my grieving family, then hear them say how hard it is to have lost a child and a brother. I get to see them smile on the day when the journalist’s article is published in the largest newspaper in the country. I get to watch as my grandparents are laid in the ground nearby. I get to watch as my parents age and Oliver and Sebastian, with Dani’s hesitant consent, decide to put them in an elderly facility so they won’t have to take care of anything themselves. I get to watch as some fool allows Greenpeace to take GEO over and is eventually thrown in jail for breaking into a Greenlandic whaling facility. I get to watch Tina marry that punk whose hand she was holding in the church. I get to watch Steph get hired by one of the Silicon Valley giants and live a luxurious life under the Californian sun. I get to watch Rasmus and Dani have their wedding, then their three children, then their true twenty-first-century divorce – and then their reluctant affair with each other behind their children’s backs. I get to be the kind of judging, omniscient presence in their lives that God or Jesus should have been.
There’s no such thing as purgatory or paradise. They’ll all realize that someday.
Rasmus is right. I appreciate the irony.