Being dead isn’t the handicap the general public thinks, it is to be free from the limitations of human bodies and the restrictions of physical laws, one can travel wherever and whenever one wants. The whole universe lies open, so long denied to ordinary people. An endless list of never answered questions can be addressed, journeys to unachievable places achieved, unattainable objects and dreams attained. As for company there are hundreds of thousands of millions to choose from and their friendship can’t be lost. The dead aren’t going anywhere.
The sun was shining brightly, the birds singing loudly as John O’Brien straddled through the graveyard. Having no physical form, he couldn’t feel the heat of the sun – yet he knew it was hot. He couldn’t hear the birds chirping – yet he knew they sang. After twenty years being dead, he had well-adjusted to the idea, and was quite amused at the antics of the human world, obsessed as it was with deadlines and schedules, money and possession, power and inﬂuence. As a man, years ago, he too had considered these important but now he marvelled at the stupidity of it all.
He had been told that there was a new arrival and John always liked to meet the new ones, knowing as he did their confusion and shock. He saw him sitting on the gravestone, elbows propped on knees, face buried in the palms of the hands. He slid in beside the man and tapped him lightly.
The man turned. “What is it?” “I’m John”, John said, “And you are “Michael Martyn, look, can you tell me what’s going on. “Am I alive or …” the man shuddered but went on, “or dead?”. John smiled. “I know what’s going on in your head right now, so I’d better tell you straight out. You’re dead I’m afraid.”
Martyn’s eyes widened in shock. “Oh God, what do I do now? I’ve nowhere to go or …”. John patted him gently on the shoulder. “Take it easy. Look, there’s obviously a lot I have to tell you. First, we’ll have to sort you out and see where you’re going. Then we’ll have to …,” he stopped when he saw the horror creeping across Martyn’s face.
“What?”, he asked. “Where I’ll go?”, whispered Martyn. “You mean heaven or hell? Oh no ….” Suddenly a little terrier nosed its way around the corner of the headstone, stopped, sniffed and began to growl at them.
“He can see us?” Martyn asked, surprised. John nodded. “Certain animals can, but humans can’t. You see, you – we – have no physical form left at all – we can choose whatever shape suits us best. You’ll see what I mean when they sort you out.”
A hopeless look crossed Martyn’s face. “But I haven’t exactly led a good life. I cheated and lied and stole and everything so I’ll probably go straight to hell’.
“It might be easier for you to understand if I tell you how it happened to me”. John suggested. “I was sixty seven when …”. “Sixty seven!”, exclaimed Martyn. “You don’t look a day over thirty!”.
‘ “Time is relative,” said John as if speaking to a particularly slow child. “We could sit here for 100 years. We’d know the time was passing, we’d be aware of the time passing, but it wouldn’t have any affect on us at all. Anyway, I was rundown by a bus and killed instantly. I wandered around in shock like yourself until I was taken to the sorting room”.
“Hundreds of newly dead people standing around, confused, while a man stood on a podium in front of us. “Hands up who believe in God!” he shouted. Well, of course, none of us wanted to go to Hell and we reckoned that not believing in God was enough reason to be sent down. So, we all stuck up our hands.
“Then we were put in a long queue by a door where a fella stopped you and asked you again if you believed in God. Of course, being this close to getting in, no one said no. But I didn’t fancy spending the rest of my death praying so I waited until last”.
“When it was my tum, the fella – his name was Peter by the way – he put a hand on my shoulder, and asked me if I believed in God. Well, by now I had enough courage to say that I didn’t really”.
“Well, if I brought you in and introduced you to him, would you believe?” he asked. “Well,” says I, “I’d believe he existed but that’s it. “With that, Peter smiled, “Good answer”, he said to me. He was a decent enough chap so I stayed chatting to him, and he told me about what went on behind the door”.
“Oh yes, it’s Heaven” he told me. “But you see, there’s a sting in the tail. When the newly-deads are in the sorting room, they’re all so scared of Hell that they say they believe. And, of course, there are the sly ones who’ve led evil lives and see how easy it is to get in to Heaven and so escape Hell, or so they think”.
“You see, once you’re inside Heaven, there’s no getting out again. And that’s just fine for the religious ones because they have eternal happiness. But the bad ones, we spot them a mile away.
Everything is fine for a while but then everything is so good and clean and religious and well-meaning that it drives them insane, and their eternal lives become pure hell”.
John smiled as puzzlement creased Martyn’s face. He continued. “Well, that was the cleverest scheme I had ever heard of”.
“So there’s no Satan?”. I asked Peter”. “Of course not. Evil comes from free will. A man chooses either to be evil or good”, he answered me.
“So this is Heaven?”, I asked”. “Yep”, Peter nodded. “But it’s Hell too”, I said. “That’s right”, Peter said. “Heaven is Hell”. “Well, if that isn’t the slyest thing I know. Your GOD must be ‘dead’ smart”, I said.
“So Peter told me that he could give me whatever I wanted. Seeing as I used to be a teacher. I asked to be allowed to roam the universe at will. And here I am”.
Martyn’s eyes were staring wildly at John, who just smiled understandably. “Listen, just come with me and we’ll sort you out”.
They slipped off the headstone and disappeared leaving the terrier barking in confusion at thin air.
Written by Bernard Kelly
Published here 20 Feb 2023 and originally published December 1997
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