It finally happened. Some people said it was the end of the world, yet the optimists felt that recovery was possible. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed. Millions died in the event and those remaining were left to mourn those who were lost and find a place to dispose of the bodies. The cemeteries were full.
During the pandemic of 2020 they had begun burying corpses in layers, three or four stacked in a grave. Now after so many years, there were no more graves left and no more cemeteries available. Crematoria were fired up twenty-four hours a day to process the dead. Often there was no one left in a family of mourners to accept the ashes, so they were taken in huge trucks to be dumped in giant holes–mass graves. The prediction of Nostradamus was coming true; so many people had died that there was no place to bury them.
Remsen saw it as an opportunity to become rich. That was his style; always looking for a way to make money. He hadn’t thought much about what he’d spend it on or where he would spend it, but that never mattered to him. It was important to amass money: gold, bitcoin, paper (although paper was close to worthless now, and cryptocurrency, without the resources to mine it, didn’t seem to have a future.) To be wealthy, he joined with the optimists in believing that recovery was possible, for when everything returned to normal, anything he earned would be worth much more. But first, something had to be done with the bodies.
Socialism finally became a way of life. Food was scarce, and the government loaded trucks and delivered a ration of food and bags of potable water weekly to each house. They knew from the census how many lived at each address, and those who never filled out the census form needed to go to their local government office to register so they didn’t starve. Governmental health clinics were set up at every hospital to provide medical care. The hospitals had never recovered from the pandemic of 2020, and the loss of staff from this last event left them even more severely shorthanded. Lines were long so people either stayed home or treated themselves with information from the internet. The number of deaths surged.
Another government truck came to distribute cardboard boxes filled with cremains. It was left to the mourners to decide the final disposition of the ashes, maybe in a garden, a local park, or respectfully dumping the cardboard box while the strong west wind was blowing so it would carry the ashes to places the person never visited when alive. Some days the skies became dark from the ashes that were being transported on the wind. Easy to do since the wind had become much stronger since the event happened.
Remsen sat in front of his computer, his eyes squinting at the blue light of the screen as he scrolled looking for a money-making idea. He mulled over a few schemes to fill his pockets. What was the biggest need? Not food, water, or medical care. They were provided by the government. He stroked his stubbly chin as he let the devious part of his brain work on a plan. The biggest need was for cemetery space for the bodies, more crematoria, and new places to deposit the backlog of ashes. How could he combine these three needs to make a boatload of money, gold, or cryptocurrency? “Boatload?” he said, under his breath. “What about a boat? No, not a boat, a ship!”
During the pandemic of 2020, cruise lines lost a lot of business. Passengers no longer booked trips because they were afraid of illness. The cruise lines pared the number of ships in their fleets, put them in dry dock and offered them for sale. Despite the bargain prices, the ships had been for sale for years with no takers. Remsen picked up his iPhone 96 and called a friend who worked at the dry docks where some of the cruise ships were stored. “Frank,” he said, “Are those cruise ships still on the market?”
“Yeah,” Frank said, sure that Remsen was kidding; “How many do you want?”
Remsen knew that the largest ones held almost 7,000 passengers and over 2,000 crew members. His plan would not need that many crew members because the passengers would all be dead. “How much for each one?” Remsen asked.
They agreed on a price and Remsen bought three of the largest ships. Frank helped him hire 50 crew members–the minimum number of crew needed to run the ship. The ships were returned to the water and technologists rebooted all the equipment. Mechanics tested and tuned up the engines and installed remote navigation systems with some additional features specified by Remsen. The cleaning crew cleaned the main deck and one cabin on each deck as the model room. For those unable or unwilling to pay for a room, he hired carpenters to build niches on the outside decks for the urns of ashes. Carpets were shampooed and vacuumed. No need to clean further, just enough to lure the mourning family members into paying for their loved one’s last voyage at a level that would console them in their grief and make Remsen a rich man.
He started his marketing campaign. First, the internet because it was the cheapest. He found photos of the ship from its heyday, white and shiny with flags on each deck. He posted the pictures on Meta. Then he arranged for interviews on NPR and early morning TV. Calls and emails began to come in.
“Will my mother have her own cabin?”
“Of course. Each cabin is $10,000. They all have balconies. If you only need a niche for an urn of cremains, the cost is $2000. It’s a beautiful ship and a beautiful cruise.”
He signed contracts with local funeral directors giving them a kickback for each body that was booked. He also set up a travel agency to handle reservations which started to come in abundance.
And the money began to roll in.
Remsen ordered cases of cheap champagne for the corpse sendoff. There was still-usable stemware with the cruise line monogram stowed in the ship’s galley. He made up a list of cabins on each level of the ship that people could choose to provide a resting place for the bodies, and for niches along the outside decks for cremains. Some had lost two family members and he adjusted the price to $15,000 to accommodate those wanting a double room. Then he sent out an email blast to news outlets to announce the launch of the first ship. Remsen held a news conference outside the shipyard, showing stills of the accommodations for the deceased. With a capacity of 8,000 corpses at an average fee of $10,000 each, he stood to make $80,000,000 just from one ship. With a charge of $2,000 for each niche for the cremains, for a ship with six outside decks, there could be room for 5000 resulting in $10,000,000 more.
The logistics for loading the dead were huge. Vast numbers of hearses would need to line up for unloading the 8,000 caskets and 5,000 urns. They would be backed up for miles on the city roads leading to the pier. It might easily take a few days. Remsen contacted the police to ask for traffic control; and the Chief, who knew Remsen was a scammer, made a few phone calls to see if any of his contacts knew about the plan. One of those contacts was Landsman, the head of the Longshoreman’s union who was resistant to the whole idea. Since the Longshoremen were the only people allowed to move cargo on the piers, Landsman wanted a payment for allowing his men to work the docks those days and letting the scheme proceed. Bribes were part of the culture of the piers, and Landsman saw this as an opportunity to make a lot of money for his longshoremen and of course, for himself.
“What do you want from me?” asked Remsen, knowing that this wouldn’t be cheap.
“Five hundred for each casket and two-fifty for each urn. Half now and half after we’re done.” Landsman planned to pay the longshoremen double their hourly wage for working and would keep the rest for himself with a small financial gift for the police chief to thank him for the referral. Remsen moaned at the size of the bribe but knew he had no choice if he wanted to get these ships loaded, so he agreed.
There were lines of hearses at the dock on the day of departure. Longshoremen did their job on the pier. Caskets were wheeled up to the gangplank which was specially constructed to accommodate them. Each casket had an assigned room and the crew made sure they were placed accurately. A small brass plate was attached to each door identifying the body inhabiting the cabin. Remsen, although far from sentimental, added the idea of nameplates as a “nice touch,” despite the time it would take to install 8,000. To save time, he ordered each nameplate with a backing of double-faced tape with more than adequate adhesion strength to hold the brass identifiers. They were easily peeled and placed on each cabin door. After the caskets were placed in the room, the staff opened the sliding glass doors to the balcony and quietly left the room.
Small boxes and ornate jars filled with cremains were set in the niches. Similar plates with the name of the dead were attached to each niche. The whole process of loading took three days. Remsen, dressed in a Captain’s uniform and wearing aviator sunglasses to cover the evil in his eyes, entertained mourners on the main deck with champagne and a short memorial service. The mourners thanked him, some teary-eyed, some with a smile on their face. They had done it right; just what Mom would have wanted. Remsen blew the ship’s horn three times, and the mourners left the ship, waved, and went on to continue their lives.
Remsen and the crew then left the ship and as he stood on the dock, he pressed the button on the remote navigation system. The ship, filled with 8,000 corpses and 2000 containers of cremains, headed out of the harbor. When it arrived in international waters, he pressed another button, and the ship began to sink very quietly into the deepest part of the ocean. Water poured into the open balcony doors hastening the process. As he stood with the remote in his hand, he calculated his profits, roughly $85,000,000, and chuckled, thinking of two more ships waiting to make their ghoulish, yet very profitable, voyages.
Joanne Insull, a former teacher and trainer for children and adults with disabilities, has published five picture books and three of her short stories have been published.