The guys I work with say that dead people are gone and that's the end of it. That a body is a body is a body.
I accepted this in the beginning, but the longer I work in mortuary transport, the weirder it all gets. Some people are gone, it's true: you take one look at them and can safely say that there is nothing going on but the rent. The longer they've been dead, the more likely this is to be true, but not always. I believe the process can actually take quite some time, depending on the nature of the person concerned, the circumstances of their death, and how resolved they were about dying. It's just a question of noticing.
Now, I'm not saying that they're still in their bodies; obviously they're not or they'd be alive, eh. Nevertheless, a corpse can retain a subtle energy of some kind, at least for awhile. Of that I am certain.
Transfer One shall be called Miss X. I transport her sight unseen as The Boss, in a rare moment of chivalry, has already packed her for me, for which I am eternally grateful. There is nothing quite like heading out to an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere, hours before dawn, to load a body from a mortuary fridge into a truck all by your lonesome. At such times, you remember every last detail of every zombie film you ever saw in your whole life. Call me sensitive, but I care for it not.
Instead, I'm given the papers, the keys, a packed van and a delivery address. Sweet. But I notice that the vibe is weird as soon as Miss X and I are alone together. The weather, already nasty, turns apoplectic and stays that way for the next 4 hours. The van behaves so strangely I suspect a steering problem: it attempts, repeatedly, to drive itself off the highway without warning, and requires so much strength to control that my upper arms ache for days after. I have so many near misses with giant, deranged logging trucks taking corners too fast in the rain that I laugh in disbelief. Somehow we stay on the road, though the truck gets a pummelling, losing pieces of itself to the wind, which shears the sun visor clean off, into the air and up into the sky, presumably landing in a paddock somewhere, I hope. I usually sing on the highway, it keeps me alert, but my voice falls flat in the woolly air and peters out. Worst of all, the smell from the fridge in the back - that ghastly mixture of faux-floral deodoriser, vinyl, and the sweet, permeating, irrefutable odour of death - inexplicably seeps into the front, leaving me nauseous and vaguely claustrophobic.
I remain stubbornly cheerful. I'm not particularly afraid to die, in case you haven't noticed, but neither am I in any great hurry. The trip is hard work, to say the least, and I'm relieved to arrive, by which time I am in no doubt that this woman did not die well. When we finally unload and unwrap her, her anger and unhappiness is palpable, and hits me like a smack in the face. Even the mortician starts and takes an unconscious step backwards, although there's nothing particulary alarming about Miss X's appearance. She was young, and otherwise healthy, apart from some nasty, and probably fatal, damage to the wrists.
Poor love. I'm sure she had her reasons. And 20 bucks says that chief among them was being Mightily Pissed Off. This woman was furious and wanted someone to pay. I know this because it was very nearly me that did.
I drive back, about 5000kg lighter. The truck does not misbehave, no one tries to kill me on the highway, the sun comes out, and my singing mojo returns. The fridge does not stink. I make excellent time and, noticing an op shop en route, score an awesome birthday present for a friend in 2 minutes flat. You just know everything's groovy when that happens. End of story...
The very next day....
Mr Y is elderly and has died of natural causes. Here is a soul you can reasonably assume to be well and truly flown and I, believing as much, pop him in the back and off we go for the afternoon.
This trip, in stark contrast to the day before, is nothing short of magical. Everywhere I look there's something beautiful happening. It's difficult to describe without sounding mawkish and B-grade, but try to picture a landscape and sky by Cecil B DeMille, a masterpiece in depth of field and theatrical lighting. Heraldic birds swoop and cross the front of the truck; still more arc the sky in perfect formation. Intermittent sunshine through dark rain clouds heralds the imminent arrival of Our Lady - I wouldn't have been a bit surprised. It was outrageous, and impossible to describe adequately without sounding really silly. You're going to have to take my word for it. It was Perfectly Lovely.
Initially, I drew no comparison between this trip and the one before; I was simply marvelling at the succession of Beautiful Things, but when finally I lost count of how many rainbows I'd seen (I think I stopped at 25, or perhaps it was just one long rainbow that came and went), and it all just went on and on, it dawned on me that I was witnessing The Flip Side: the same inexplicable energy I had encountered the day before was cutting the other way, and I was now travelling with a soul that was not only deeply at peace, but joyful and celebratory. And I, in all my weird, embarrassing, hippy yoginess, was bearing witness. Perhaps he was just hanging around for his funeral and an opportunity to say goodbye to Loved Ones. Maybe he wanted to be sure he looked dapper for The Viewing in his suit and medals (which were numerous and impressive). Or maybe he was just a few rainbows short of an exit and fancied a ride in the rain with me. Maybe I'm completely insane and imagined all of this. Who can say? Truth is stranger than fiction.
But fuck it, life is short, and I'm getting harder to embarrass as I age, so I ran with it. I pulled the van over, grabbed the thermos and drank a hot chai toast to Mr Y and a life well-lived, in the freezing cold, under a rainbow sky. This man was happy, peaceful, and a joy to be with, and I felt honoured to have crossed his path. I smiled, admiring the epic scenery and biblical light, and had to admit that even driving a mortuary truck has it's moments...
I confess, I was a bit sorry to leave him in the end, and patted him goodbye with sincere affection. Who knew you could have so much fun with a dead guy? It's a shame we didn't meet when he was 20 years younger and....um....alive.
I seriously need to get out more.
So anyway. Dead. A Bit Dead, Pretty Dead, Mostly Dead, Dead and Gone. It would seem that there are degrees involved, which is intriguing, and now I have some serious research to do. I am told that Buddhist scholars write of the soul's post-mortem attachment to the body, leaving or staying in proportion to the acceptance/fear they may feel about death. Might be a good place to start. Like most things, Death would appear to be less cut and dried than I'd thought. There is time involved. It's a process. And it's very subtle.
I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.
And I will forgive you for thinking I'm crazy. Seriously, I wonder about that one, myself....