self-portrait, Francis Bacon
"Can I help you, son?"
"Uh, yes, sir. I missed my grandmother's funeral--"
The undertaker raised a disapproving eyebrow.
"I was deployed, sir," Nick explained. "And now I want to pay my respects."
The undertaker whipped out his phone, and started scrolling through a list. "Well, then, what was her name?"
"Poole, Poole . . . Oh, yes! Come this way."
They walked along the path between plots of close-clipped grass.
"She's the first in a new section we've opened. Your grandmother was a very progressive woman."
Nick chuckled. "That she was. Always excited about new things. We used to call her Grandma Gadget."
"I think you'll like this, then. Right over here."
A shiny black headstone stood apart from the mottled granite memorials. Nick thought back to his geology merit badge training. "Is that obsidian?"
"Even better. It's interactive." The undertaker brushed the blank stone with a long finger, and words appeared on it.
"It's a screen?"
"It's a beauty, isn't it? Solar powered, with very efficient storage batteries. Sealed tight against rain, extreme temperatures, impact, and hacking. Go on, touch the menu."
Nick crouched before the screen and chose the slideshow. Black-and-white images of solemn faces crossed the screen. He sat, entranced, watching his grandmother grow from a long-gowned infant to a smiling bride, to a colorful grandmother. "Hey, that's me! What a family reunion. Grandma was so excited about her new GPS that she forgot the hot dogs . . . "
When the slideshow ended, Nick chose the genealogy button. He watched a pedigree tree grow from his grandmother's name, in both directions. "Cool."
"Some of my colleagues are offering similar information through a QR code etched on a regular headstone, but how long is that technology going to be in use? I prefer this self-contained unit. And here's the best part." The undertaker pointed to a menu entry. "Personal messages from the deceased."
"Really?" Nick chose his name from the list of grandchildren. His grandmother's face appeared. She looked older than he remembered, but still had a gleam in her eye.
"Oh, Nicholas, I am so proud of you. You've always been brave and true in your service. I'm just glad you're listening to this message before you meet me on the other side. Now that you're back, I hope you'll find a nice girl and settle down, stop worrying your poor mother. You're a good boy, Nick. I love you."
The undertaker looked back at the cemetery's flagpole as the Nick blotted his face with his sleeve. Nick cleared his throat and stood up.
"Did you, uh, record this?"
"Yes, right there in my office. When the iStones catch on more, I hope to build a proper recording studio. But, except for your impressive grandmother, such things mostly appeal to the young. And the young tend not to plan this far ahead."
"That's for sure. I joined the Marines, did all the training, went to Afghanistan. I never thought I could actually die. Until my buddy was gone. None of us did."
The undertaker handed Nick a tissue. Nick blew his nose loudly.
"Do you have a card or something, sir? I know a few guys who might be more interested in planning ahead now."
"Of course. I'll go fetch you some flyers." The undertaker strode back to his office.Nick settled down in front of the stone again. He scrolled through the menu. There were messages for his Grandpa, his mother and her siblings, all his cousins. And more. He picked the "Minister" entry.
"Thanks for all your support, Randall. You've been a good shepherd. But don't forget, I wrote the best church newsletters this congregation has ever read. They'd better give me a big vote of thanks. And I'll be rolling in my grave, right here, if you let Doris Howard get her hands on the newsletter. She'll make everything rhyme, and she can't even spell 'Deuteronomy.' You listen to me, Randall . . ."
Nick snorted. That was the way he remembered his grandmother. He scrolled past messages for the doctor and the paperboy, the piano tuner and even a favorite librarian. Then Nick's eyes widened. He knew it wasn't his business, but he couldn't ignore the category "Old Boyfriends." He picked the name Willie Gottlieb.
"Oh, Willie, you came! You always were a sweet one. All my best to Janice and the kids."
Well, that was nice, Nick thought. He tried Lee Rutter.
"How dare you darken my grave, Lee Rutter! You still can't leave a girl alone! Get thee hence, you--"
Nick hastily stopped the message and sat back. Leave it to Grandma, he thought. Who else would cast the first iStone?