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Advanced Studies in Thanatology

On a corner of downtown San Diego, within view of the marina, stands a glass building that is neither an investment firm nor the headquarters of a technology corporation. Because the letters that spell the Institute for Advanced Studies in Thanatology are not only small but metallic, and considering the region’s scarcity of clouds, they are almost certain to catch the sunlight and disappear into the glare. Consequently, few people have managed to decipher those letters and fewer still have any notion what they portend.

            The void has given birth to a great mass of speculation, some tending to see the Institute as an attempt to realize a utopian vision, while others imagine its rooms and baroque halls belong to a death-worshipping cult. And there are still others who view the Institute as an atypical amusement park, whose rides and carnival temptations are somehow veiled to pedestrians on the street. Although each of these claims is not entirely divorced of merit, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Thanatology is in reality far more radical than any of its detractors and superficial defenders presume.


A fifty-one-year-old native of Philadelphia and a religious studies scholar, Chadwick Quarrington defected from his career as associate professor at the University of Southern Indiana in order to establish the Institute for Advanced Studies in Thanatology—an idea that had sprung up at him as a graduate student and hounded him through the decades. A man with thinning reddish-blond hair and penetrating blue-gray eyes, Quarrington favors a pea-green blazer that speaks to a modest drive in the realm of fashion without spilling over into haute-couture pretension. While some might be quick to assume that an abiding immersion in the mysteries attendant to human demise would sour his worldview, Quarrington’s temperament is by turns lighthearted, contemplative, sardonic, animated, irascible, and withdrawn, a rotation he can cycle through inside of an hour. Even in the refuge of his office he strikes me as uncontrollably restless, and instead of confining himself to his swivel chair he gets up and paces, and then ushers me to the balcony. “There’s a line from Whitman,” he says, “bout how anyone who tries to read me in a library—anyplace except maybe some island in the open air—will find my poetry dead.” Quarrington’s eyes don’t settle on the marina docks for long before his focus drifts to a circling gull. “Of course, Whitman means ‘dead’ in the colloquial sense. He wasn’t spouting metaphysics, because there I believe he and I would largely agree.”

            Though according to Quarrington the investigation into the nature of death is a primordial subject that even harrowed the bards and philosophers of prehistoric cave-dwelling hominids far back in the evolutionary chain, thanatology is an invention tracing its origins to the early twentieth century. In 1905, Russian scientist and eventual Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff suggested a field ought to be created that would take a clearheaded look at late-stage physical and psychic morbidity in the hope of reconciling the terminally ill to their fate. He called it thanatology after the god Thanatos, the deification of Death in the form of a beautiful winged youth, who shows up in Homer and other Greek texts as a sort of cosmic pallbearer. Yet it was gerontology, the study of aging, a field Metchnikoff also conceived, that drafted so many scientists and biologists to the service of its pursuit.

            Thanatology followed a different path; it didn’t so much thrive in the laboratory and hospital as it did in the academy, attracting the scrutiny and inquisitiveness of psychologists, sociologists, theologians, and metaphysicians. Carl Jung made great strides in the analysis of death viewed through the prism of alchemy and myth. Martin Heidegger argued that anxiety of death was at the foreground of the human drama, that its historical repression through a series of metaphysical fantasies was tragic, alienating us from the essence of Being. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross generated the now widespread meme of the five stages of grief one progresses through after receiving the gut shot of a terminal prognosis. Raymond Moody, a physician with acute mystical sensitivities, coined the term Near-Death Experiences, those surprisingly ubiquitous accounts of pilgrims who’ve returned from the Land of the Dead. And it’s not like there has ever been a drought of death-obsessed novelists, poets, musicians, sculptors, painters, and filmmakers intoxicated with all things reeking of the sepulcher and funeral home.

            Quarrington’s brand of thanatology eschews the dying patient’s struggle to resign himself to death or the burdens and bereavements of family and spouse. Although he counts himself “an empirical thanatologist,” rather than a mere armchair theoretician, he has fled the clan of atheistic materialists who make up the default scientific worldview. Instead he sides with Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel and American journalist Leslie Kean in his conviction that death is only a metamorphosis, the afterlife a sort of chrysalis to contain the psychic life force before its eruption into a bright new form. 


Recently, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Thanatology garnered more publicity than it ever has when one of its “postmortem simulations” was featured in episode three of Shaylah Kleinerman’s documentary series The Afterlife Explorers. The most memorable sequence of the episode devoted to the Institute begins with a close-up of a male initiate who is nude and seated in a lotus position in a room that must be deep within the recesses of the building, far out of range of the California rays. The narrator tells us that he is in the final minute of a three-hour “emptiness meditation,” employing a technique derived from Dzogchen. His eyelids are half-shuttered, his spine symmetrical, his respiration almost mechanical in its regularity.

            Upon completing his meditation, the initiate, as emaciated as Gandhi in the last phase of a hunger strike, opens his eyes, extinguishes a candle flame with his breath, and then, rising from lotus, performs several less-familiar yoga postures—one in which he ejects his tongue from his mouth as if in imitation of a gecko, another in which his balled-up shape seems to bely the existence of a skeleton. After bowing in each direction and drinking a cup of what the narrator calls “Eleusinian tea”—its name alluding to the Hellenic mystery rites in worship of Persephone and Demeter—he passes through a satin curtain etched with an arabesque design.

            He now finds himself in an alien environment, a cave or dungeon. Darkness triumphs, even if tiki torches scattered at intervals offer a faint reprieve. We hear a liquid roar, the booming echo of a charging river. Shrill cries pervade the cavern. As we wrestle with our incredulity, the narrator of The Afterlife Explorers assures that, yes, bats are present as “collaborators” in the postmortem simulation. But we need not be concerned—they are harmless fruit-eating bats, with no taste for mammalian blood.


Enjoying the aerial vista of the city from his ninth-floor balcony, Quarrington tells me that to be frank he believes the question whether consciousness continues after the body perishes has been “pretty neatly wrapped up.” He is positive that “anyone with a rational but curious mind to study the literature will grasp it.” Quarrington, though, is not about to wait for an endorsement from the parliament of scientific opinion before he proceeds with his comprehensive study of the posthumous condition. “What a craven bunch of wimps these professional scientists have become,” he says. “With few exceptions, they’ve been perverted by the dogma of materialism. The love of knowledge has deserted them.”

            His colleague, Rhonda Iglesias, assistant director of the Institute, believes Quarrington is attempting to spark an Einsteinian revolution in thanatology. “Until Chadwick came onto the scene,” she says, “everyone had it backwards. Thanatologists were far too invested with how death seems to the living. Chadwick and his researchers are absorbed with the opposite. He’s trying to carry out the early investigations of the postmortem state, mapping the landscape of the afterworld. He is still at heart a scientist, but he’s stumbled on a domain assumed to be the fantasy of far-gone religious people. It just turns out that it’s real.”

            Iglesias is a gangly woman in her mid-fifties with a long face and thick-framed glasses in a cheetah print. She has opted to keep intact some flashes of gray in her otherwise black crown of wavy shoulder-length hair. Her own route to thanatology was an unusual one. After majoring in French literature in college, she spent two years haunting the crooked streets and cacophonous jungles of southeast Asia. In the final months of her journey she picked up the art of Qigong and Chinese foot massage, and when she tired of the itinerant lifestyle, she moved back to her hometown of Cleveland and began working as an alternative medicine therapist. One night some fourteen years ago, while intoxicated and distressed, she suffered a fall down a flight of stairs. Though her body was shocked into a state of unconsciousness, her mind or soul sought release from its damaged vessel and flew off into an ethereal realm of indigo and orange lights where she encountered several beings whom she describes as “tinsel sparks, raging with a weird silvery beauty, exuding a blinding love.” These beings communicated with her through telepathy, beaming information and explanatory images directly into her mind. They then led her on a tour of the intermediary realm, “a vast black chasm over a slender ravine,” which marks the portal between our world and the next. Iglesias says of the experience that it was the most alive she’d ever felt even though it occurred at the moment she was closest to being clinically dead.

            As she recovered in the hospital, a nurse suggested she probably had a Near-Death Experience. She soon discovered the work of Moody and van Lommel and became immersed in the content of a YouTube channel examining the paranormal. Eventually, by scouring the internet for anything related to the immateriality of consciousness and iconoclastic theories of death, Quarrington and his Institute, then in its early development, came onto her radar. A few weeks later, when she noticed he’d posted an ad for an assistant, she applied. “He ignored my resumé,” she says. “He was like ‘I’m not sure how Qigong is relevant exactly.’ But I talked him into hiring me by bombarding him with emails.”

            “It was that NDE she had, I believe,” Quarrington says. “Rhonda was scarily motivated when she arrived. She knew from the inside what for a lot of us was only arithmetic.”

            “I keep him grounded,” Iglesias says. “Interesting considering all the floating I’ve done.”


In the footage from The Afterlife Explorers series the initiate, upon taking in what he can of the dim surroundings, appears momentarily perplexed. That’s when a disembodied voice, piped into the simulation chamber through hidden speakers, instructs the initiate to “lie down in the migration capsule,” which, we soon discover, is a lightweight boat built for a single passenger. Like a canoe it is bowed and curved along the sides, but like a raft it is wider and comprised of distinct wooden ribs. The torches, sending a tremulous red light into the shadows, allow the initiate just enough visibility to identify the capsule and take up a supine position at its base.

            The initiate has barely settled into a cadaverous repose when a violent onrushing of liquid seizes control of the capsule, sweeping it into the wild possession of a downward sloping channel. This is not pure water but a murky grayish substance, like some noxious chemical left in a beaker after a botched experiment in a lab. Vapor emanates from the swarm of bubbles, creating a miasma that encloses the capsule in a phantom cloud.

            Amid the crashing of tides, a new auditory dimension emerges. It is music—abstract and minimalist and consisting of little more than a spare arrangement of tones. At times they sound like notes on a harp, at others like a glockenspiel. The notes ring with an eerie suspension, resonating through the cavern’s hollows, rebounding from its dripping walls.


Quarrington is fond of citing Plato’s dialogues, particularly the Phaedo, as a precursor to his view that all mortal existence is best seen as an academy where the pupil, after many bitter assignments and frantic tests, graduates into the afterlife. Plato, who of course tends to speak through the mouth of the loquacious Socrates, thinks the ideal preparation for death involves the proper exercise of philosophy, music, gymnastics, and math. And though thanatologists at the Institute have plenty of chances to engage in classical death rehearsals, Quarrington is more celebrated (and derided by opponents) for advocating what he calls “postmortem simulations.” The Institute currently offers one hundred and four postmortem simulations, each challenging the initiate in a capability that may well prove necessary in one of his afterworld adventures.

            The postmortem simulations are designed to prep the soul in the art of travel. The goal here is to navigate certain archetypal features that serve as doorways between worlds. Rivers, tunnels, bridges, stairs, tubes, pits, warrens, graves, and environments that resemble sewers all recur in multiple iterations.

            One of the aims of the simulations is for the initiate to cultivate a quality Quarrington calls “scissor mind,” which he describes as an energetic vigilance or sharp discernment that can cut through layers of confusion and forgetfulness that easily accumulate in the afterworld. Without mastery of a scissor mind, the novice traveler to the deadlands is sure to fall prey to cosmic traps. “The Egyptians were aware of how disorienting the underworld is,” Quarrington says. “According to some of their fables, the deities created it like this to eliminate souls who are not properly initiated. It’s not enough to survive into the realm beyond death. We want to bring our consciousness with us. Getting there as zombies, with our consciousness scrubbed, returned to a tabula rasa, does us little good.”


The narrator of The Afterlife Explorers estimates that the ride through the liquid in the migration capsule lasts six minutes. At the end of this journey the initiate is carried over a drop of fifty or sixty feet, crashing into an expansive pool where the same nameless gray substance froths in the whirling pressure of the falls. The acoustical sounds of the cascading liquid lend the film’s audio the quality of being caught in a torrential storm. Even the shrieking bats are defeated by the noise.

            The descent over the falls has separated the initiate from his capsule. Undeterred, though looking smaller and frailer than ever, he treads through the hazy broth, his skin sickly in the orange firelight. Although the outer ridge of the pool is shallow and the initiate has no difficulty standing with his head raised above the fumes, after a period investigating in the darkness, it seems to dawn on him there is no exit from the cave. He circumambulates the edges of the pool, grazing the slimy rockface with his hands, occasionally pressing into the stone wall, heaving into it with a beast’s panicked determination. Though many minutes elapse in this solemn effort, the initiate can find no secret passage leading out of the gloom.

            Eventually, the initiate discovers that he can reach one of the tiki torches affixed to the cavern wall and avails himself of the glimmering prop. He now undertakes another circuit, casting the blazing nub of his torch into the blackness. Somewhere in this dense cauldron there must be an opening, a crevice or corridor that will rescue him from these simulated ruins. Yet the torchlight illuminates no greater treasure than some hairy strings of algae sprouting in the rockfolds.

            What his eyes see in the delirium of his trials we cannot know, but a few times he lurches backward as if he made out in the shallows the crimson shell of a scorpion, or the writhing tail of a rat. Perhaps the creature he senses is hallucinatory, a demon birthed from the phantasmagoria of his oppressed mind.

            At last he hurls his torch away, the flame sinking into the fluid with a hiss. Is he aware of a need to surrender himself to the mutant water? Of the atrocious certainty that he must push himself to the boundaries of his evolutionary endowments in order to progress to the next stage of his task? Whatever the logic, he soon dives into the ash-colored pool. And he is lost, dead to the camera. A bubble rises, swells and holds its improbably distended shape for an instant, then explodes, merges into nothingness, into the pristine darkness of the cave.


On the afternoon of my third visit to the Institute I catch Quarrington in an impish mood. “I’m willing to break some taboos today,” he says. “I don’t usually show outsiders certain parts of the building, but you don’t strike me as an enemy of thanatology. Not unless you’re being extremely sly.”

            Though I assure Quarrington I’m here in good faith, I wonder if he hasn’t reconsidered when he leads me to the library, a daunting collection of many thousands of volumes of paranormal literature and an equally immense film and photographic archive, but certainly not the Institute’s most controversial enterprise. “The idea that you can’t capture anything supernatural on camera is provably bogus,” he says. “Skeptics immediately race to the notion that they’re dealing with a hoax. And without question, when it comes to psychic phenomena, forgeries are not lacking. But they’re so eager to dismiss everything, they end up confounding the authentic with the fake.”

            Quarrington waves to two white-haired librarians. Both are wearing cardigans, brown trousers, pink-framed glasses, and I do a double take to be sure they’re not twins so much do they seem like Gemini in service to the occult. Although the Institute is highly regarded for its postmortem simulations, in recent years scholars on the paranormal are treating the library as one of the most revered collections. Quarrington likes to say he won’t be satisfied until he has his own Alexandria. He’s cheered by the progress. “Already our telekinesis section is second to none,” he says.

            Other rooms in the building’s top level are allocated to controlled studies of extra-sensory faculties. Trance mediums, specializing in physical manifestations, submit to being fastened to a chair with leather straps so that the wonders elicited (trembling tables, floating disembodied hands, bells ringing by themselves) cannot be explained away as some flashy artifice one might expect from an illusionist of the stage. I am introduced to one of the most studied trance mediums, who in her séances channels the spirits of several expired personages, one of them a New England diplomat who would bore people with his affected talk were it not that he’s been a discarnate soul for two hundred years; another a boy of seven with a mellifluous voice who used to collect mantises and rare insects and was throttled to death by an abusive sister; another a lady with a foul mouth and a habit of gossiping about licentious schoolteachers and wayward priests. While the trance medium falls into a swoon, losing consciousness, the troupe of spirits inhabits her body. Each speaks with his or her own intonation, diction, and rhythm, manipulating the medium’s vocal cords and limbs as if she were no more autonomous than a doll. The trance medium is a wispy Irish woman with a crop of lemony blonde hair and a distressing way of planting her gaze slightly to the side of my head, as if some specter had attached itself to me. “I am noticing quite a lot of activity in your energy field,” she admits. “Mostly helpers, I believe, but if you want to be sure you can reach me here.”

            Quarrington whisks me off into the elevator where I read the medium’s business card, marveling at the list of exotic powers. He tells me it’s not unusual for people with psychic abilities to have a few related talents. “It’s kind of like being an artist. Most actors can sing or dance to some degree, even if they’re not all Sinatras. So, yeah, most of our trance mediums have a little ESP. And these lucky folks who can dialogue with apparitions,” Quarrington shows me his straight white teeth, “can probably also precognize the occasional future event.”

            With the exception of a few newer simulations relying on the use of sensory-deprivation chambers and computer-generated graphics, the Institute’s simulations are housed on the building’s basement floors. The design for a simulation known as the Vault of Specters Sim looks a bit like a complicated water slide, a narrow tunnel swerving and rotating in the knotted shape of a large intestine. The idea here is for the initiate to crawl through the system of tunnels, an intricate maze that acts as an endurance test on both the physical and psychological plane. As the initiate’s claustrophobia mounts, some of the passageways becoming so narrow they are hardly wide enough to accommodate the body of a racoon, the voice of a technician will utter a series of taunts calculated to eat away at the initiate’s resolve. Unpleasant mantras like “You will only fail” and “Why don’t you just give up, you pathetic worm!” are repeated ad infinitum. And to further enhance the severity of the exercise, before entering the simulation the initiate is obliged to consume a piece of sponge cake laced with benzodiazepines and other delirium-producing drugs that subvert the ability to process linear time. With the ordeal’s nightmarish aspect elongated in this way, catharsis at the end is even more ecstatic.

            “I’m not of the school that says death is easy,” Quarrington says. “There’s a whole group of researchers who conclude, erroneously in my opinion, that all you need to do is slip out of your body and, voila, you’re free. Nothing else to do but fly up to heaven where you encounter angels as beautiful as the ones in Florentine cathedrals, and your dead relatives are beaming, and even your old pets have turned up to lick your face. I’m afraid to say that our remote viewers and on-site psychics demonstrate—contrary to the sentimental version of the afterlife—that death, at least in the short-term, remains a ferocious struggle.”

            Another simulation Quarrington shows me is the Sleeping Through the Afterlife Sim. A key finding of the Institute’s psychical research and afterdeath communications is that atheists, tending to expect an eternity of nothingness, will often start out in the afterworld creating this illusion for themselves. Although according to Quarrington some atheists will achieve separation of the soul after the death of the body spontaneously, the most ossified dogmatists must sometimes endure what are experienced subjectively as decades, or even centuries, in a sort of nothing state, in keeping with the blank picture they anticipated. “That’s how powerful the mind is,” Quarrington tells me. “The staunchest atheist-materialists invent for themselves the death they expect. After a while—and who knows how long it takes since all indications are that one experiences time differently in the afterworld—the reality that they are not dead after all starts to seep through to their hardened consciousness.”

            Quarrington calls the moment when the hallucinatory fantasy of the iron-clad atheist collapses “waking from the false death.” For reasons still unknown to Quarrington and his team of investigators, those who wake from a false death will experience this sudden interruption of what they believed to be an eternal sleep as a desire to surface from their grave. Since some of the students of thanatology at the Institute may, despite all the breaches in materialism they’ve witnessed, lapse at certain moments into agnosticism or even atheism, the Sleeping Through the Afterlife Sim is likely to be highly curative in preventing them from succumbing to a false death. In this simulation a blindfolded initiate who is, again, heavily incapacitated with deliriants and woozy sedatives, is deposited inside an open grave. A simulation assistant, known by the moniker “simlord,” will then wait for the initiate to show signs of waking (slight involuntary movements, yawning), at which point the simlord will begin to fill the grave with dirt, though trying to avoid getting it into the initiate’s mouth. The goal of this simulation is to force the initiate to stir from his torporous confusion and rise to a painful recognition of his false death. Once this basic illumination is achieved, however, the initiate must still persuade the simlord to offer assistance; it will be all but impossible to extricate himself from the grave on his own. Receiving the simlord’s mercy, though, is not simply a matter of requesting it. The initiate may have to solve riddles and undergo intense physical punishments that the simlord can administer at his or her own discretion.

            Staring into one of the narrow graves that make up the Sleeping Through the Afterlife Sim, I can’t say that I’m very enthused about becoming a thanatologist. Then again, if Quarrington is right, this is a kind of truancy I can ill afford. “There’s a lot that can happen in the first few months of the underworld experience,” he says. “Part of what these simulations are meant to do is help you realize if you’re somewhere absolutely undesirable, someplace designed with crocodiles and psychopathic murderers in mind. If you end up in those domains, you’re probably going to want to flip the switch. And for that you’re going to need thanatology.”


When next we meet our initiate in The Afterlife Explorers series he has risen from the opaque slop of a second pool, one that appears identical to the first. The simulations teem with doublings—passageways and repeated corridors, rooms and ordeals that mirror others he may have wished to believe were only prickly memories rather than presentiments of torments yet to come. The effect of the repetitions is sure to bewilder the initiate, forcing him to develop the faculty of scissor mind. We are told by the documentary’s narrator that the initiate discovered a hidden subterranean tunnel at the bottom of the previous pool. We are shown an image of a muddy burrow so slender and clogged with a substance that looks like wet cement that it can’t but bring a knot of dread to the stomach imagining the initiate’s thankless slither to the other side—only to find himself in a space that replicates the features of the earlier cavern.

            The situation seems unbearably grim until a small but ultimately colossal difference is detected. Almost invisible in the scarce flickering light, the rungs of a transparent ladder emerge out of the smoking brine. Upon discovering the ladder’s existence, the initiate bows, gazing up in a kind of stricken hallelujah—perhaps in honor of Quarrington himself, the mad demigod who presides in equal measure over his anguish and salvation.


Although the great majority of thanatologists at the Institute are grateful for the education they’ve gained, a sober evaluation of the enterprise cannot omit several ill-fated episodes. Some of these incidents are really only physical mishaps, accidents and bleak medical events of a kind that are not uncommon at carnivals—even if Quarrington expresses irritation at any comparisons between his Institute and “those hell-sprawls of mindless fun.” Nevertheless, a combination of engineering miscarriage and a share of freakish chance events have, at least for the fainthearted, blighted an otherwise laudable endeavor. These accidents have ranged from concussions and fractured bones to mutilated limbs and, in one particularly gruesome case, decapitation. Quarrington becomes visibly rattled when I raise the topic. “It’s possible that a few of our early simulations went too far,” he says. “Many have been recalibrated and subtly refined. A few had to be abandoned altogether.”

            The Angel of Death Sim involved a mechanical angel, a sort of winged and haloed robot, wielding a sword in the vicinity of a blindfolded initiate who was chained to a steel pole. Although the mechanical angel operated at a sufficient distance to make its swordplay innocuous, a purely psychological crucible, somehow the initiate freed himself from his chains, and without removing his blindfold, leapt straight into the rapture of the blade.

            Rhonda Iglesias, who remembers the incident well, having been in the room with one of the technicians who was observing the scene on camera, says that while everyone at the Institute bore some responsibility for the accident, it was also clear the beheading was an act of rebellion—a deliberate strategy to achieve self-annihilation. “I remember the initiate pretending he was not impressed with any of the simulations he tried,” she says. “He kept complaining that he didn’t feel as though they’d release him from his afterlife fears. And so, we kept trying to provide for his needs. But the whole thing was a bluff—he was not a true thanatologist, only someone who lacked the courage to tie a noose or take an overdose.”

            The misfortune has at least spurred the Institute into demanding a more probing psychological assessment of candidates to the advanced program. Anyone exhibiting signs of mental instability, particularly major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, is barred from even the gentlest postmortem simulations. “The sad irony is that psychotherapy often reveals death anxiety to be at the root of mental illness,” Quarrington says. “But with so many battles in this debased moment we inhabit in history, it’s become our policy to turn away anyone who would mistake our Institute for a euthanasia clinic.”

            For the first time in my encounters with Quarrington a look of pained resignation washes over him. “You have to remember this Institute is not the cult that some vicious people insist it is. In most respects, we thanatologists are the same as everyone else. We participate in the culture more than people realize. We may enjoy music or dancing, the exuberance of travel, the frivolity of games. We hurt, we love, we crave, we die. Only in that final act are we different. For us death is a return—a marvelous return. We have prepared for its possible agonies, its inevitable cruelties, even as we thirst for its unsurpassable delights, for riches inaccessible to the beings of this forlorn planet. And we know our simulations will fall short, but still—they are something, they will have to be enough.”


When the initiate reaches the end of his long ascent up the ladder his head pierces a viscous membrane that upon contact leaves him doused in a white gelatinous slime. Here the initiate has crossed through the exit portal out of the simulation, resurfacing in the Institute’s reception studio. He is greeted by about twenty five past initiates, among them Chadwick Quarrington in one of his tailored sports jackets. Applause threatens to overwhelm the poor initiate at the very moment of his meek coronation. Most thanatologists glimpsed in the slow-panning camera are wearing party hats or some novel festive accoutrement. A couple of kazoos sputter through a series of little tunes.

             Still, the party is tempered; no pictures are snapped of the initiate in his compromised state. A technician in her fifties, one of the initiate’s mentors, presents the nude man with a ceremonial chocolate cupcake and a glass of red wine. The initiate needs no more than a moment to ingest the refreshments. With the help of his mentor and Rhonda Iglesias, he is guided to a showerhead where he is “baptized” before all. Cheers ring out through the gathering as the first bloom of warm spray envelops the cowering figure with matted hair and eyes so big with incomprehension they resemble those of an octopus. It is considered an honor to lather some body part—his foot, elbow, buttocks, anything—with jasmine-infused soap. Others cover the initiate in rose petals, brightening his chaste form with the enchantment of color.

            After he emerges from the hot rinse and puts on a snug pair of striped pyjamas, the initiate is steered to a golden chair. Quarrington delivers a brief speech, alluding to the initiate’s “valiant struggles in the postmortem chambers.” His travels through the synthetic underworld earn the initiate a scroll, an ocarina flute, and a bamboo cane. Iglesias then leads the army of death-defiers in a mirthful song with verses in many languages attesting to the impossibility of the soul’s destruction. The initiate slumps into his throne, finally giving in to the euphoria of his triumph, his sweet and languorous relief.

            But tomorrow his labors will start again. Time on earth is finite and there are many varieties of death to rehearse in the study of thanatology.  


Marcus Spiegel's fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Boulevard, North American Review, Southwest Review, Sycamore Review, Pembroke Magazine, and Santa Monica Review. His fiction can be found in The Pushcart Prize XLVI: Best of the Small Presses 2022 Edition. He is writing a collection of short stories and a collection of essays.