Sci-fi / A cemetery / An elephant tusk / 1000w
For their visit to Yn-Lusang Biomatter Museum, the students were told to bring spare battery packs, as their cameras and mobiles wouldn’t aircharge on museum grounds. Most were able to do so, but two or three of the scholarship students had to borrow them from the university. I went out of my way to make sure these few saw that I had a borrowed battery pack, too.
Professor Siparc had organized the annual trip, as she always did, and I had leapt at the chance to leave my crowded adjunct office and chaperone the class of biotechnology majors.
“Undry,” she had said to me as the students filed into the campus rapidrail. “Have you been to the educational cemetery before?”
It didn’t seem necessary to qualify it as “educational,” since it was the only cemetery on Pluria, but I told her no. Growing up, my family had not had resources to spare for trips. Add to that how suspicious my mother was of the whole thing, and there was never a prayer of my going–to borrow an outmoded but relevant expression. Professor Siparc seemed to relish the fact that mine was yet another virgin mind to cultivate.
On the rapidrail I skimmed the materials that the group had been assigned prior to the visit: a chapter from Perribus on the general abandonment of organized religion, several essays on the ecological benefits of biomatter recycling, and vids of cemeteries from old Earth, all aerials filmed by drones. The–I checked the word–graves marched across grass and stone, sand and forest. There were even stills of prima-cemeteries, ranging from mounds of soil to massive colossus. All this to ensconce dead biomatter. There was no collection, no tissue rejuvenation, no organ resynthesis. Nothing for our students to study or work with.
At the museum, we gathered in a large glass and neosteel hall to listen to a guide. “Not all colonies are suited to traditional cemeteries,” she said. “There are aquatic worlds, of course. And certain soiltypes dissolve carbonic biomatter within hours, which rather defeats the purpose.” She smiled. “The community that created our cemetery told us that Pluria is near-perfect.”
“Who maintains the cemetery, ma’am?” asked one student, which was a question I’d also had.
“This cemetery belongs to the museum, but was once maintained by the United Jewish Faithful of Yn-Lusang,” the guide answered. It took me a moment to recognize the word Jewish, as I had never heard it spoken. I had only read about it, and other “faiths.” “Unfortunately, the last of their community was buried here several decades ago.”
“In exchange for permission to use museum grounds for the cemetery, the Jewish Faithful allowed the museum to use it as an educational tool,” Professor Siparc added, causing the guide to look at her disapprovingly. I suspected the concept of “ownership” was a hotly debated one when it came to corpses.
The cemetery did not look quite like any of the old vids. It was perhaps one square kilometer, containing about forty graves. The monuments, we were told, were made of synthesized marble and granite, each etched with a surname. We were asked not to stand on the “plots,” as it was considered disrespectful. “To what?” one student asked, and although Professor Siparc told him not to mouth off, I thought he was genuinely asking.
The sky was lovely and clear, with suns major and minor unobstructed by clouds. The megaflora that the Jewish Faithful had cultivated provided shade that felt silken on the skin. There was something unexpectedly peaceful about the cemetery. Even the students moved and spoke quietly, although nobody had told them to. They seemed to forget about their cameras and mobiles.
“Burial practices were seen by early archaeologists as markers of civilization,” Professor Siparc was saying. “The emergence of Homo Sapiens was signaled by the discovery of dateable gravesites. Bodies were found arranged in predictable positions, often accompanied by objects of value. Metals, foodstuffs, flora.”
“Being wasteful doesn’t seem very civilized,” one student said. I found myself agreeing.
“On the contrary, it was a kind of saving, for them,” Professor Siparc replied. “It was supposed to preserve the soul, or guide it somehow. By honoring the flesh.” She paused. “Burials were a near-universal practice when we had only one world. Can you think why?”
We all considered this for a moment. Souls, like faith, were a loose concept. Such religious abstraction had not found favor for millennia, encouraging as it did the forfeiture of precious resources. And clearly, there was no one left to provide apologetics.
“What are these symbols?” another student asked, pointing to a monument.
Professor Siparc looked at me. “We have a linguist here. Let’s ask her.”
I crouched to look at the monument closely. “This is Hebrew. It was a dead language before Colonization, but it was sacred to some. Like the Jewish.” The word felt awkward.
“Can you read it, Professor?”
“No,” I said, regretfully. It wasn’t my chosen specialty.
Inside the museum, we were examining a carving made from a long-dead elephant’s tusk when Professor Siparc and I simultaneously noticed a student was missing. I looked at her in alarm, and she signaled for me to go check the cemetery.
Without the group, I felt like a trespasser. Sun major was setting. The cemetery was hushed, reminding me of a nursery, like the one where my mother had cared for infants. Keeping to the path, I scanned the graves until I saw the student, squatting near a grave, at the base of a megaflora in lush white bloom.
Unwilling to shout, I hurried to him. He was tracing a finger over an inscription on the stone, his face inscrutable. I stopped and stared at him. The grave plot, with the body beneath, separated us. He said something to me, which I didn’t understand. Had I misheard him? The air felt weighted.
My confusion must have shown, because he stood and murmured, to my shock, “It’s Hebrew, Professor.”
It’s fun to recycle scraps from older work. Yn-Lusang was a city name I came up with WAAAY back during my high fantasy phase. I brought in a bit of “what you know” here too, with the adjuncting and the linguistics. It just happened…
I enjoyed taking classes in anthropology, and the use of burials as an indicator of civilization really interested me, especially thinking about what the practice says about the development of the human mind.
Getting this one to 1000 words hurt. I feel like I sacrificed more descriptive detail than I wanted to.