From Beyond the Grave

Written By Meg Elison

Meg Elison is a Philip K. Dick and Locus award winning author, as well as a Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, and Otherwise awards finalist. A prolific short story writer and essayist, Elison has been published in Slate, McSweeney’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Fangoria, Uncanny, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Elison is a high school dropout and a graduate of UC Berkeley.

The ancients mourned in ways we simply cannot imagine. Their dead passed out of life leaving little to nothing behind. Grieving people make jewelry out of hair or ashes and probably always have, but for most of human history there were no photographs. Deceased lovers left letters, long-gone moms left behind diaries and recipes, killed kids stepped out of tiny shoes, never to step in again.

Postmodern mourning comes with the dubious gift of video.

This gift might be wrapped in the safe and solid fourth wall: a photo and video montage of the deceased, their favorite song rolling over footage of softball games and wedding dances, brave waves from a hospital bed. Alternatively, it could come wrapped in something as metal and off-putting as aluminum foil, presented in first person with full eye contact from the beyond.

Rapper XXXTentacion led a brief and legally embattled life, dying after twenty years and four studio albums. Shortly before his death, the artist born Jahseh Dwayne Onfroy filmed a music video for his song “Sad!” The video, presented at the rapper’s real-life funeral features footage of Onfroy walking past his own corpse, displayed in casket. The funeral was small, consisted mainly of family and other recording artists. The average morbid moonbat can listen to the song, but stripped of the original imagery. YouTube requires the viewer to click through a warning about suicide and self-harm in the lyrics before it will play.

This is not a strictly 21st century power move from beyond the grave, however. Andy Kaufman famously addressed his own funeral with a sing-along, accompanied by clips of his appearances on Saturday Night Live played for family and his fellow comedians in a synagogue in Great Neck, New York. Marvin Gaye sang the National Anthem at his memorial in 1984, attended by many of the great Black musicians of the 20th century including Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross. In 1986, actor, musician, and producer Desi Arnaz left a video urging his fellow smokers to quit before it was too late because it was way too late for him. Just the year before, king of The King and I fame Yul Brynner left the same notice with the chilling message: “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: don’t smoke.” (Note: I agree with Desi and Yul here. I’m still alive and I don’t smoke. Coincidence? Check back in a few decades.)

Nor is this the velvet-roped VIP experience of dying and memorializing. Anyone can record a video when they know the end is near, as Andy Moss did. Twenty-nine year old Brittany Maynard, afflicted with incurable brain cancer, made a video explaining her choice to die on her own terms and her own timeline, avoiding the painful and degrading wait for the reaper to finally get around to her. Gestures like these might make it easier for people to share their final thoughts with the people they leave behind without the pressure and emotional overwhelm the last moments of life invariably offer. They can also be watched multiple times, if people wish to revisit. But in the end, this is a concept of more utility to the dying than to the survivors. This practice might give one a chance to reminisce and celebrate a life well-lived. But think of the possibilities! One could also leave a truly withering tell-off to a funeral guest who can’t possibly get the last word now. Or lay a curse.

The current age of content means that many habitual video essayists, gamers, streamers, and other types of new media creators have access to share their plans to end their lives, and sometimes follow through. These videos can be fascinating and heartbreaking, giving that horror-movie urge to yell at the screen. Don’t go in there. Call a friend. Researching them for this article gave me a strange feeling; talking-head videos are an addictive simulacrum of intimacy, because we crave familiar faces and voices. The ancients did, too. When someone has died, even someone we never knew, this familiarity crosses over into the category of memory. But unlike 25-year-old streamers having a bad run of days, video never dies. Look, I’m not going to link to any of these. Most of them are deleted and buried, and that’s for the best because this shit is contagious. If you’re having a hard time, there is help available.

And now for something completely different.

For those who don’t crave video, whose grieving wish is simply to hear that beloved voice just one more time: be careful what you wish for. In 2019, an Irish man left an audio recording of himself asking urgently to be let out of his casket as it’s being lowered into the grave. Craic kills.

The ancients couldn’t conceive of jokes like this. They didn’t live the lives of constant surveillance from both within and without that we willingly accept and often court these days. Explaining to our ancestors that we’re getting camera-ready for a reading of the will would sound incomprehensible to them, no matter how we tried. But those of us who live in the age of digital video will also mostly die in the age of digital video.

If we’re lucky.