On the outside, our new issue, “Rites” by Matthew Baker is a surreal twist on how to exit gracefully from life. But the core of this funny and surprising tale digs much deeper and comes out the other side, taking a stance that challenges society’s collective fear of aging—and values every moment that our hearts keep beating. Contributing Editor Will Allison brought “Rites” through our doors, so I’m turning the introductions over to him. We were all entranced and challenged by this extraordinary piece at One Story, and I hope that you are as well.—HT
Not long after my grandfather died from Alzheimer’s disease, I wrote a short story about a man who decides to kill himself after learning that he’s in the early stages of dementia. At the time, euthanasia activist Dr. Jack Kevorkian was in the news, and though I don’t know if my grandfather ever considered suicide (assisted or otherwise), I wanted to imagine a death for him in which he at least had a say.
That same notion—getting to choose how you’ll die—is what first drew me to the surprising, consequential story in our latest issue, Matthew Baker’s “Rites.” (Spoiler alert: I’m about to reveal the story’s premise, but I promise not to give away the ending.) “Rites” takes place at an unspecified time in the future when all responsible American citizens, upon reaching the age of 70, customarily kill themselves in the manner of their choosing. It’s not a requirement but rather a right—and a rite.
Enter Uncle Orson, a lethargic, retired history teacher who scandalizes his overlarge family by refusing to do “the rites.” As Uncle Orson’s nephew Zack tells him, “You can’t keep on, just, consuming resources, creating waste, without contributing anything to society. There are nineteen billion of us on this planet. A family planning policy helps prevent drought, prevent famine, wars over energy. By stalling, you’re hurting everybody, you’re hurting my generation, you’re hurting the kids’ generation, you’re hurting their kids’ generation, you’re living like a primitive.”
That the story finds so much humor in death is but one of its many charms. Yes, “Rites” raises big issues—the right to life, the right to death, the rights of the individual versus the rights of society—but above all it is an affectionate story of a family in crisis. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a story about death that’s so full of life, and maybe that’s the point.
If you want to know how things turn out for Uncle Orson and his family, read our latest issue. And don’t forget to take a look at our interview with the author to learn about the story behind the story and why Matthew Baker has decided against a sky burial.