Monday, 20 December 2010

Sum - My Take on the Afterlife

Some time ago, a book was published called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, by David Eagleman.  This delightful, imaginative, moving, thought-provoking book is a collection of short imaginings of what the afterlife might be like.

I thought I'd have a go at writing one myself....

You will wake up in what appears to be a reasonably good quality hotel room – clean, comfortable and completely characterless. There will be the usual tea and coffee making facilities, TV, en-suite bathroom and so on. The thing that will be missing is the door to the outside. The view from the window (which does not open, by the way) will appear to be a generic cityscape – nowhere you recognise.

You will wander around for a while, as all hotel guests do on their first day in a new room, peering in the various drawers and cupboards and checking out the quality of the biscuits/soaps/shampoos/towels, etc. The cupboards and drawers will all be empty apart from the usual hotel paraphernalia of leaflets about laundry arrangements, the Room Service menu, Do Not Disturb signs and those strange detachable coat-hangers. On none of these items will the name of the hotel be found.

There will be a phone beside the bed, but it will have only one button marked ‘Room Service’.

Eventually, you will be bored enough to turn on the TV. There will be only the one channel, however, and after watching it for a short time, you will realise that it is showing your life.

After watching some more, you will realise that what is being shown is not simply a replay of your whole life, rather it is a collection of selected events - all ones where you have behaved badly, have made mistakes or been embarrassed. Not one instance of you letting yourself or others down has been omitted from this montage and it makes excruciating viewing.

You could, of course, turn off the TV at any time, but then there would be nothing else to do.

Puzzled, ashamed and intrigued by turns, you will continue to watch. From time to time, you will take a break to sleep or to order food and drink from Room Service – which will appear almost immediately out of thin air.

Days will pass, the bed will somehow be made, the room will be cleaned, and the tea and coffee, and the little soaps, shampoos and towels will all be replenished as if by magic.

Eventually, the TV will get to the end of your life and then the programme will begin again from the beginning.

At this point, it will come to you that you are probably meant to do more than just passively watch the programme, so this time around, you will try to work out why you are being shown only the bad parts of your life.

As each scene unfolds, you will study it more closely than you have previously. You will try to divine some meaning in it, but no other meaning will become apparent and the programme will repeat again when it reaches the end. This will happen several times and the lack of any apparent progress will reduce you to despair, you will imagine that this is some kind of punishment for your sins.

If only I could be granted forgiveness, you will think.

The thing is, there will be no one else here but you.

It is only when you finally realise that you are the only one who can forgive the lapses and sins being shown on the TV, that the missing door will finally appear and you will be able to leave.


  1. Wouldn't it be cool if we could forgive ourselves BEFORE being locked in a little room?

  2. How cool was that! Enjoyable, yet disturbing, intriguing and lots to think about. Didn't guess the ending either, and I love it when that happens.

  3. And then where do we go?What's through the previously missing door? I enjoyed this, when's the next installment? If the room service included alcohol, I think I'd be happy enough to stay.

  4. This is profound teaching. Thank you.

  5. ok that is interesting on two counts - firstly because i think it sounds like a good possibility (and damn fine writing btw) and secondly because i woke up with half an idea in my head this morning about Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Frank Sinatra arriving in Heaven's waiting room - weird

  6. Bug - forgiving myself is something I'm always finding a struggle, so yes it would be good to do it before we go.

    Titus - thanks for the feedback, I was trying not to telegraph the ending too much.

    TFE - an eternally stocked mini bar maybe. Now that's the basis for a whole other story.

    Michael - thank you. It's not often I get to do 'profound' - or teaching, come to that. I certainly could use this lesson for myself.

    DFTP - now that's a weird dream and the possible base for a story or a song, and thanks for the kind words.

    I think, personally, I'm destined to spend a long time in the hotel room.

  7. You know the one about Mick Jagger meeting Mrs. Mary Whitehouse in the Afterlife, just the two of them, alone in a room with "The Sound of Music" playing endlessly and only Schloer to drink?
    Jagger:- "So! This is what Hell is like?"
    Mary.W:- "Oh no, Mick. This is Heaven!"

  8. Hehe, Lucy, I have to say I think that would be Hell for me too - although I do enjoy Schloer. Sartre reckoned Hell was other people - particular people. I can think of a few that it would hellish to spend eternity with, but also some with whom it would be a pleasure. I wonder if they have the Internet in the afterlife...?

  9. The Internet in the Afterlife? Interesting debate. Interesting Magpie/Poetry Bus etc prompt?
    In an earlier comment forwarded to me by eMail you asked to post a link to my "clock" poem on the website "Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery"
    That's O.K, but would you send me a note of the link when you have placed it. Thanks.

  10. Lucy - this was prompted just by reading the book 'Sum' and a bit of office banter with someone else who had read it. We challenged each other to come up with an imagining of our own. I'm still waiting to read his, which he has promised me in the new year.

  11. I enjoyed reading your story. Interestingly, there have been some reports of people who had near death experiences who went through a life review, which showed the results of their actions through the viewpoints of the people affected by them. It was presented non-judgmentally, but was reported to be a difficult experience for the person having it. It's something I think about now and then.

    I had a dream about death a few years ago, which looked at it from a different perspective:

    Dream - Getting lost

    Stephen from Scottsdale, Arizona, USA

  12. Stephen - Being given a life review would be a real eye-openeer I'm sure. One would hope that there would be good things in there and not just painful or embarrassing ones.

    It's really nice to read your comments after so long.


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