Case Study

Short prose · Original title: »Fallstudie« · Translation by the author · From Swedish · Merge · 1998, No. 1, pages 10–11 · Photo: Man and his barrel, Niagra Falls, c. 1900

Just as every body emits its specific smell, so does every grave. Mine is no exception. The wood of the coffin is cool and damp, with a faint but umisstakeable trace of rotten fiber. When I press my palms against its sides I sense the chill behind the poorly planed boards. Between two of them, muddy water is seeping in. And behind the casing is a smooth, low-key sort of turbu­lence, soft, virtually silent, as if engaged in forgetting. In this regard, of course, the coffin is like any other. The tranquility and density, the thick, thudding dark­ness created when existence is re­duced to a few cubic feet or so — the attributes are routine and expected. What makes this coffin different is some­thing else. The air inside has that thin, greenish quality I associate with seaweed and other water vegetation, a sweet and sickly smell I at first found hard to identify. Initially, I thought of moss, soft and thick and mellow, but then it occurred to me that this was not so. Despite the immo­bility of the smell it did not possess the same peace­ful satiation. Instead there was a sort of shifting inertia, if I may put it thus, hovering like silvery dust in after­noon light. Streaks of green made the air at once live­lier and more deadly — an odd combination, obvi­ously, as noth­ing surely could turn more lively or lethal here. Then it struck me: algae. Personally I would have prefered an­other smell, not necessarily drier or cleaner, but I am hardly in a position to choose. Instead I have tried to get used to the air in the time I have been here. A breath of peaceful putridness; I can­not put it more succinctly. Although the mixed smells of wood, cold, and algae thus gives the coffin its partic­ular quality, this is not all that makes it different from others. There is something else: it is not at rest. Let me explain; the case is not as odd as it might seem. Of course, buried coffins should not move. This is rule number one in any cemetary. The grave is the de­ceased’s last habitation, and in The Big Beyond he ought to be able to count on peace. Hence a graveyard must be quiet, peaceful, and easy to locate. The only thing others may do is to visit. A name and a date, perhaps a few words of wisdom . . . there is not much else to find. Beyond that, cemetaries are a matter of concern only to city planners. Still, there are other forms of burial. For example, the physical prison that once housed the soul may be burned, leaving the choice of strewing the ashes to the wind or pouring them in an urn which subsequently may be buried or placed in a columbarium. Although not popu­lar, the first solution is used on occasion. I remember an ac­quaintance, for example, whose last wish was to have his ashes spread on a river in a country to whose cul­ture he felt particularly close. Since it is not legal, at least not without further ado, to convey corpses to other countries, a problem was at hand. The survivors resolved it by dis­tributing the ashes in envelopes di­vided among them. Each person carried three or four missives, filled with transitoriness. In this manner, they were assured that at least some part of the de­ceased would make it through customs and into the desired country. One might wonder, of course, who carried what portion of the deceased, and even fear that a few grains of dust might have remained at the bot­tom of the envelopes after the ashes had been re­asssembled. Regardless, however, when the ashes ar­rived in the foreign country, the dead’s last wish was indeed ful­filled. A motor boat was chartered, and early one morn­ing, before local authorities had rubbed sleep from their eyes, the ashes were strewn over the river. From what I have been told, it took a surprisingly long time for them to sink. Either the surface tension was greater than else­where or the ashes were unusually fine. At any rate, they were dispersed across the water, a contentless film of re­sistence, refusing to dissolve into the new medium. Later, someone claimed that, during a few moments, the de­ceased had been visible as a thin sheet of paper before the wind wrote him apart. In other cultures the dead is placed on a funereal pire which subsequently is ignited. When the fire finally dies down, nothing is left. On good grounds it could be argued that the deceased, to the extent that rest has been found at last, is buried in the air. Incidentally, I find this thought rather attractive: the dead becomes one with the ether. But the reverse might also happen. At sea, sailors wrap their dead comrade in a piece of cloth designed for this purpose; after ceremony and salute, they ease him overboard. The covered corpse is equipped with weights so that it will sink more easily and, once at the bottom, it will stay there, a swaying stalk of pastness. In the former case, the remains as­cend toward the sky and fuse with heaven; in the lat­ter, the corpse de­scends to the deep embrace of the wa­ters. In both cases the process is vertical, in the direc­tion either up or down, which, I suppose, proves that one may fall both up- and downward. Considering the smell that surrounds me, it would be easy to assume that I have been through the lat­ter. Nothing could be more wrong, however. For me, too, of course, things are going downhill, but find me a person whose time is not running out. Everyone has a deadline. In my case it will turn out slightly different, that is all. I plan to be the first person in the history of burials who will suc­ceed in making the exit and end become one. My ambi­tion is not a revolutionary one, though. I just wish for dying and death to coincide this one time so that, for once at least, first and third person singular may strad­dle that great divide. Until now, the latter has always suc­ceeded the former, as burial inevitably follows upon demise. But presently I sense real turmoil. The barrel in which I am sitting has begun to sway. The waterfalls cannot be far away now. While there is still time I would thus like to add that I look forward to the histor­ical impact that is bound to be made. The case, one may hope, will be stud­ied.