To sleep, to die

30 September 2004 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Unelmakuolema (‘Dreamdeath’, Teos, 2004)


Who would not like to cheat the grim reaper? Ways are known, of course, both scientific and non-scientific, but all of them are uncertain and temporary. Except for the simplest: to get there first oneself.

The refinement of this idea was Dreamdeath’s business idea. ‘Dreamdeath – because you deserve it!’ went Dreamdeath’s slogan.

The Dreamdeath home offered those who wished it the means to the most pleasant, even luxurious realisation of an autonomic death in an atmosphere of moral approval, against a suitable fee. At Dreamdeath the client himself decided when and in what conditions he would leave his mortal clay.

Dreamdeath did not employ the term ‘suicide’; its place was taken by ‘event’ or ‘project’. It was a tamed, timed, extremely refined phenomenon, purged of everything unexpected.

The Omega Foundation had founded Dreamdeath in the teens, after a change in legislation. At that point suicide was recognised as an essential human right which must not be stripped from citizens. The foundation was the first in the country to trademark a self-chosen and autonomic death.

If a person can choose his toothpaste from among thirty-six different brands, it would surely be unreasonable if he could not choose his own moment of departure, its place and manner.

Dreamdeath considered one of its spiritual fathers to have been Dr Glas, who wrote more than a hundred years before: ‘The day is coming, and it must come, when the right to die will be recognised as a much more essential and inalienable human right than the right to place a voting slip in a ballot box.’

There were, however, those who were so determined that they wished to carry out their last act themselves and alone, those who would not for anything have sought out Dreamdeath or who could not afford it. But was Dreamdeath’s offices and website warned, considerable risks and possibilities of failure were associated with private attempts.

There were indispensable advantages associated with fitness for death. At Dreamdeath, there was no need to fear the intervention of compassionate nearest and dearest or the failure of the method. Here, the individual’s right of self-determination was honoured. Ease and freedom from disturbance were guaranteed.

A quality death, a gourmet death, had from the beginning been the institute’s aim. Dreamdeath did not pursue old or terminally ill people as clients, people whose time was already close to its end. No, ordinary terminal care was for them.
Dreamdeath’s product idea was aimed above all at healthy people who for one reason or another were tired of their lives. Some spoke of a rational, carefully chosen death. Others wanted to make their death a work of art, or were already bored of other extreme experiences. Those who did not control their lives wished to control their deaths.

Dreamdeath already had offices in many cities. For the capital’s Dreamdeath centre, ‘home’ was altogether too modest an appellation. The centre had, through the years, developed into a highly individual area of the city. In Dreamdeath’s little square, which locals, for one reason or another, called the Brain Square, one could sit in the sunshine or among the tall rhododendron bushes admiring a glass sculpture in which blood, not water, circulated. It took the form of an apeiron and its name was ‘The infinity of life’.

Before the ‘event’, one could also spend time in Dreamdeath’s well-equipped mediatheque, or, if one was still sufficiently hungry, glance at the admirably long menu of a Bykovian, Kungho, Tainaronian or even Lastrupian restaurant.
General athletics competitions and championship sporting events were held on the Dreamdeath sports fields. It was, after all, the dream of many an armchair sportsman to expire in the grandstand, supporting his favourite team to his dying breath.

The cinema showed, according to the wishes of clients, films in whose company they made the shift to eternity, Casablanca or Vertigo or Wild Strawberries. Those who wished it were given a sufficiently strong dayma dose in a Coca-Cola mug. Thus, at the end of the showing, a few people always remained motionless in their seats, their heads toppling against their chests. When the rest of the audience had left, a sensitive group of Dreamdeath workers arrived.

The main street led to the main building, whose concrete architecture would not be, in the opinion of experts, a positive addition to any city. Locals called it the Bunker or, on account of its crooked tower, the Jib.

But not just anyone could wander there freely. Identity was checked at the gate using not just one but two bio-identifiers, and the services were paid for in advance. The area was fenced and designed for paying clients only, and for those who accompanied them and who received a special pass. This too awoke curiosity and spread Dreamdeath’s fame.

Here, the aim was to transform the fear of death into a thirst for death. Dreamdeath’s well-trained product guides liked to make reference to Freud’s old dogma of the death instinct. They had also learned suitable quotations from Marcus Aurelius, Hume and Schopenhauer.

Phrases from Pliny were also popular: ‘Bid death welcome, for Nature herself wishes it’, or: ‘Among those blessings that Nature itself offers, there is none greater than the opportunity to die.’

The range of services was wide and the prices correspondingly varied. There was the savings line, the express line and the so-called SloBea line, which meant Slow and Beautiful (and Expensive).

For those without resources, the social services could, in response to an application, grant death support for the cheapest possible Dreamdeath. This involved a small sleeping tube for two hours, a sauna, a double hamburger and, of course, dayma.

Special offers that changed every month were popular, and special requests were accommodated as far as possible. The options and alternatives were endless. Religious convictions were taken into account, whatever the church, sect or cult they represented. Moonies and de Sadeists, Unitarians and Universalists, pagans and voodooists all received equally attentive service.

Nobody stayed at Dreamdeath for long. Most people lingered for just a day, others for a couple of hours, and those who stayed for the longest departed after a week at the longest.

Dreamdeath promised its clients a great deal. The aim was to combine enjoyment and death with such sensitivity that the client did not need to notice where enjoyment ended and death began.

In the popular erotic bungalow, the moment of death and orgasm could, at the client’s requests, be synchronised. The client could also choose the S/M line and whatever toys he or she wished: whips, studded belts, stiletto heels, ropes, dildos, rubber virgins…. A partner could be chosen from specialist workers if the client did not bring his own partner, spouse, lover or prostitute. The support staff were also trained in the popular strangling technique, but most clients nevertheless chose Lucia’s sweet evening drink, dayma. It was claimed that before it took its final effect it produced colourful dreams, that its drinkers could see strange landscapes and hear music that no one else had ever heard.

Fear of the dark

Children are afraid of the dark, and children are right. They are persuaded that all night means is the temporary absence of colours and light. But in fact it is the other way round: what is momentary is the day. Sunshine, colours and sounds are special cases, they are part of an exceptional state of being.

Day has its hours, its timetable and its programme, but night is without measure or quantity. Its moments are ruled by the unpredictable and the formless. Day is small, localised and limited, but night is timeless and infinite.

Such thoughts moved through Lucia’s mind at night as she lay awake. She thought them both when she was at work in the city hospital or at Dreamdeath, and when she was waiting in vain for sleep in her own bed.

Lucia did not speak about them to other people, her nocturnal thoughts. The night, too, was silent. Words and speech belong to the waking workd. The gifts of night are dreams and visions.

Lucia, a slim and already grey woman, was an anaesthetist. Of the medical staff, it was she who with greatest certainty alleviated suffering and pain, stunned restlessness with languor, calmed suffering with the nectar of dreamless sleep. She if anyone knew that, despite fear, no one could for long resist the call of night and infinity.

Lucia’s working week was divided between three different institutions.

At the city hospital, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, she anaesthetised people who were waiting for surgical operations: the removal of a breast or womb, an appendix or a gallstone, the mending of a hernia or varicose veins, a Caesarian section or an abortion…. Sometimes Lucia was asked induce unconsciousness that would last for weeks in patients whose brains had been damaged in a car accident or who had been the victims of cruel violence.

Two days a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays, Lucia held consultations at Dreamdath, an institution in which people who wished to die were helped over the last threshold.

Every Friday she hurried to the Freezer. That was the locals’ name for Posterus, the cryonics institute. There, newly dead were deep-frozen in order that, when conditions were favourable, they could be awoken to new life.

Lucia served Hypnos, the god of sleep, who could transform himself into a bird and who gave Endymion the gift of sleeping with his eyes open.

But Lucia, the bringer of sleep, could not herself sleep, even with her eyes shut. Perhaps it was as it should be: when others sleep, there must be one person, after all, who will stay awake and keep guard.

Lucia, the sleep-inducer, the Sandwoman, lulled her patients into night and infinity. From time to time, if Lucia had a moment to linger by the bedside and if no one else was present, she might hum her patient a line or two from a lullaby. Almost as if to herself, Lucia whispered: Golden slumbers or Now it’s time to say goodnight or Lulla lullay.

She sang to those who would wake in the morning, to those who would soon close their eyes for the last time and even to those who were already dead, whose blood had been drained away and who were awaiting another opportunity in liquid nitrogen, in their titanium coffins.

Fit and unfit for death

Bureaucracy was something those who sought a dreamdeath could not avoid. Every applicant had to fill out a form and the foundation’s board of directors had to approve it before admission. The applicant had to prove that the decision to die was the result of thorough consideration and not a mere whim, notion or revenge on a former lover. The application form was, in fact, simple: proof consisted mainly of ticking boxes. But before the eventual realisation of the project, the applicant also had to attend a personal interview. One of the interviewers was Lucia.

Every adult who met certain minimal requirements had, since the change in legislation, the right to a dreamdeath, whatever the state of his physical health.

Adulthood, at Dreamdeath, nevertheless meant twenty-five years of age. Younger people, it was believed by Dreamdeath’s board, might rush into death too lightly. They might mike unconsidered decisions if a boyfriend or girlfriend cheated on them, if an entrance exam or a job interview went wrong, if someone called them gay, fat or a whore on the street….

Guardians of under-age persons were also in a special position. Permission was so seldom granted to them that it was generally useless to make an application. Attempts were made to screen drunks, drug-addicts and mental health patients. Psychotics were not admitted, or the seriously demented, and depression too, according to the rules, had to be treated before one could dreamdie. Why a person who was an idiot, a drunkard or a drug-taker was a less suitable candidate for dreamdeath than one who was sober and in his right mind was nowhere explained.

Strange to say, even after screening Dreamdeath still had clients, but the screen was rather approximate. And it was always possible to lie; the board could do nothing about that.

If the event was cancelled, the prepayment remained with the foundation. But the right to cancel remained with every client up to his last breath. In fact, it was used very often; there were many who regretted their decisions. Those who did had of course to make separate payment for resuscitation.

Some of them soon returned to conclude the project; others never did.

Some drained their dayma to the dregs; only when their consciousness began to fragment into visions did panic grip them and the knowledge dawned on them: I’m dying!

Did they succumb to cowardice or did rationality prevail, who could decide? The question of cowardice or courage is a complex one.

Some sought dreamdeath because they were afraid of life, some because they feared natural death. People believed they were acting and choosing freely, making their decisions on the basis of rational causes. But quite different forces propelled them.

They said, ‘I wish it.’ But people have many wills, and they are not unanimous.

Lucia saw how the fear of death, too, can lead to death. There were those who had such an unreasonable fear of old age and illness that they died young and healthy rather than growing old.

How on earth had it come about that Lucia, whose old and ill patients at the city hospital would have given their eyes for a moment or two of extra life, had ended up at Dreamdeath, measuring out deadly doses of dayma for completely healthy people?

Lucia, who really thought that suicide should never have been institutionalised, had drifted to Dreamdeath by chance and at first just briefly deputised for someone else. But after only a year she had applied for and got a permanent job.

Lucia could not help but compare the Dreamdeath clients to one of her favourite clients, Aunt Signe. Aunt Signe was as old as the sky and she had more illnesses than one could imagine a single living person could suffer: psoriasis, borreliosis, diabetes, constriction of the lungs, cancer of the large intestine and rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, she was almost blind and half-deaf.

‘Sugar still melts in my mouth,’ Aunt Signe used to say, although such a remark, from a diabetic, was not welcome.

The same was not true of Dreamdeath’s clients. But it was, of course, unreasonable to demand that everyone should be as tough and durable as Aunt Signe.

Working conditions at Dreamdeath were undoubtedly good and her salary dizzying compared to the city hospital. Of course Lucia, like everyone else, was interested in a financially secure life, a spacious and quiet apartment with a good address, a polymer robot which vacuumed and washed the parquet floors and looked after domestic security, a motor bed with physiovibrastic massage equipment, an espresso machine which also ground the Illy beans, all the blessings of civilisation which a well-paid professional person can enjoy. Moreover, Lucia wielded power at Dreamdeath, her decisions influenced people’s lives and deaths. One rapidly grew accustomed to the use of power and it was difficult to wean oneself from it. But Lucia nevertheless liked to think that she remained at Dreamdeath mainly for reasons completely different from money and power.

Lucia told herself that she wanted to know why people came to such an extreme decision, as if the reason could sometimes be anything other than deep unhappiness. Although many people said they had arrived at their decision for philosophical reasons.

The wickedness of the world and of humankind was not a very rare motive. Some applicants for the death licence belonged to societies such as the Association for Voluntary Extinction or the Euthanasia Church or the Earth Mother Liberation Front. They saw it as their duty to remove themselves from the disturbance of Mother Gaia’s harmony and believed they would thus help save the suffering planet. According to Lucia’s observations, however, behind these apparently rational and general reasons there always also lay personal matters, affairs of the heart, sorrows.

But the sorrows were interesting, and there were as may of them as there were unhappy people. Only loneliness, grief, exhaustion, regret, shame and guilt were always the same.

Lucia called Schopenhauerian those who said, ‘Ever since I was a child, I have known that non-existence is better than existence.’

To them, Lucia said, ‘It may be so. But are you certain that existence ends with death?’

Almost all of them said: ‘Of course, I am completely certain.’ But the same uncertainty dwelt in the eyes of almost all of them.

Lucia said she sometimes believed in natural immortality, but Lucia’s ideas about what perhaps remained after the last breath were as dim and open to interpretation as anyone’s. If the mind, the soul, the consciousness did not die at death, did it remain the same human mind with all its characteristics, its virtues and its weaknesses? Or was it a stripped, purified, improved version? And what happened to it next?

More and more often Lucia attempted to use her influence in order that the project was cancelled or moved to the indefinite future. Secretly she had begun to carry out underground work that the foundation’s board would not have approved of. If it were revealed, she would probably be dismissed, without a fuss and politely. The board followed the statistics closely, and they already showed that her clients cancelled the event more often than average.

But it was in this way the Lucia best succeeded in justifying to herself that she, who had no belief in the concept of ‘rational suicide’, and in whose opinion the change in legislation was frankly a mistake, continued her work at Dreamdeath.

If someone had decided to give up a life that had become a burden, why should he be forced to continue merely because of other people’s social or emotional needs? Did Lucia have any reason to intervene in such a process and question the right to suicide?

The word ‘merely’ troubled her. But if she spoke about her thoughts to those who had been given the permission to die, she encountered irritation, occasionally even rage. She was told: ‘You’re trying to brainwash me!’ or ‘I have the right!’ or: ‘I have already paid!’

It was Lucia’s job to guide people to the threshold and over it long before they naturally would have reached it.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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