Monday, January 31, 2011

Viking Funeral

I'm surprised at how well the residents here at Jack's compound have dealt with his death. I suppose I shouldn't be--he was an incredibly thoughtful and thorough man, and he had this place prepared to lose him almost from day one. He certainly knew how to plan ahead.

I almost don't want to say this, but this blog has always been about the truth no matter how hurtful or disturbing, so I will: Jack died while I was with him, and I did the last rite that all survivors have drilled into them. We don't talk about it much because of how awful it really is, but I think that by not doing so, we have done a disservice to the people who read this early on, and were not warned.

I am talking about what to do with the freshly dead, of course.

In the very early days, not many people were aware that all of us seem to be infected with the plague that makes us reanimate into zombies. Many died when a loved one or close friend gave in to sickness or injury, only to come back shortly thereafter and feed upon them. Every survivor I know has learned the hard way to give that last rite I mentioned--severe head trauma. Luckily I was at the clinic where there are tools for that purpose within reach of all the beds, death there always being a possibility. I didn't have to go far, and I did the deed myself. I had felt Jack die, been there with him as the last threads of life wore through and parted. I owed his soul the comfort of knowing that his mortal coil would not become the enemy.

I won't go into detail other than that. Most of you have probably done it in one way or another. Guns, hammers, a simple chunk of rock. It all ends up being the same. We had to do it for my mom when she died, though I was lucky enough not to be the one to do it.

I'm glad I was there for Jack. Because of my presence, I was able to do the thing quickly, and left him unmarred and perfect for the funeral yesterday. It was a beautiful if simple ceremony, one used for everybody that dies here when possible. Jack came up with it, and it's as functional as it is meaningful.

For about an hour, Jack's body rested on a bier set about thirty feet from the wall. People walked by it constantly, laying fingers on his hands or touching his cheek. Every one of them left something there, something small. Most were twigs or bits of cloth, some left things like playing cards and novels. To my great amusement, Jack's named successor and friend Susan Martin left the entire Twilight Saga there with him. I asked her about it later, and she told me that he secretly loved the series, and that she couldn't stand it. This way, she told me, both of them are happy--Jack goes into the hereafter with them, and she gets to watch them burn.

An hour and almost a thousand people later, Jack's bier was loaded so heavily with flammable objects that Jack himself was almost obscured. The bier was a piece of aluminum machined out solely for the purpose of funerals, and all around the edges there were little holes. I didn't understand what they were for until I saw the men bringing over a cage, which they put over Jack and his accumulated fuel. The gaps in it were small, less than an inch between the lines of the fencing that made it up. The workers ran retaining pins through it, locking it on.

It was a quarter hour later when a shout came from the wall. One of the funeral attendees ran inside the main building. With surprising speed, men brought a strange machine from inside it. It looked like a piece of train track, but with a block of steel on one end, all hooked up to big tanks. The men on the wall pointed sent a runner down to talk to the men setting up the machine. They loaded Jack's bier onto it, right next to the block of steel, and I was beginning to wonder exactly what was going on when I heard a clatter come from the machinery behind the steel block, and I watched as the far end of the rail raised up. After a minute it became clear; Jack's funeral bier was sitting at the bottom of a goddamn launcher.

At signals from some of the guys on the wall, the angle and direction were fine tuned, and at a final signal, one of the men running the machine ran around and threw a bucket of something over the bier and it's contents.

Then he threw a match.

The thing started burning, and after about twenty seconds, it started burning VERY brightly. Then they launched him. I watched the thing go over the wall like a shooting star, so bright I had to squint, and then I saw a bunch of the people on the wall chuck what looked like small bags of stuff out after it. I was pretty curious about the whole thing, so I walked up and looked over.

There was a crowd of zombies, and they were on fire. More of them were catching as I watched. The guard next to me saw the look on my face an explained: Jack wanted every death to mean something, even if the death itself seemed meaningless. Every person should, if possible, take a number of the enemy out with them. It was amazing to watch, the guard pointing to a small bag at his waist and explaining that it was a mixture of magnesium and a few other flammable materials. No wonder the zombies went up like candles...

The whole thing kind of took my breath away. After all, who expects the last moment of a funeral, usually a somber occasion, to end up the ejection of the deceased's fiery corpse into a swarm of the living dead? I didn't. But I can't fault it. It's not how we did things, but I understand the need for a show, for the people to see the departed well and truly gone. Philosophically it makes sense--zombie population reduced, reusable cage and bier, abundant supplies of insanely dangerous explosive metals reduced in a useful way...

Jack thought of every possibility. He named a successor, Susan, a person who worked with him every day and knows how this place works. He wanted the transition to be seamless, and it has been so far as I can tell. He did amazing things here, but he made it clear from the beginning that he was in charge. That attitude and surety of leadership has allowed the people here to accomplish much, and it all came from a man with an iron will who was simply not going to let his people die.

Again, and not to dilute the power of the word, I say that's just amazing. More so because when I look at what he accomplished, I think of Jack the leader, Jack the strategist, Jack who saw the possibilities and set up his moves ten steps ahead of the game. I almost never think about what he was before The Fall. Most of us just don't see the people we used to be and the people we are as the same. Probably because we're not.

Jack used to be an accounting person at the factory that used to be housed in the main building of his compound. He started here years ago as, or all things, a janitor. He went to school for years and mopped the floors at night, working toward something better.

That's almost poetic to me. That is how I will remember Jack, how I will think of him when the lack of his company strikes my heart. I will remember him as a man who worked for the betterment of himself, but equally concerned with the welfare of others. A man who saw the need for a strong leader, and became that leader out of necessity rather than lust for power. Who Jack was and what he became exemplify the qualities in people that I most appreciate, the things that give me hope for our species and the drive to save it.

His life can essentially be boiled down to this: a janitor that saved the lives of almost a thousand people, with nothing but his brain and common sense.

He will be missed.

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