The Right to be Forgotten
Matt McHugh returns with a thought-provoking tale of grief and resistance in the face of a monolithic mausoleum…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
From a distance, the building doesn’t seem to move at all. When you’re hanging on a sixth floor balcony railing, trying to catch the seventh floor as it turns overhead, it zips like the dickens.
Officially, it’s called the Jurong Memoriopolis—a fifteen-story mausoleum housing the cremated and/or digitized remains of some hundred-thousand souls, including evictees exhumed from Bukit Brown and Seh Ong cemeteries. Hey, it’s Singapore! Real estate is premium and it doesn’t make sense to waste valuable hectares on housing the dead. And, if you’re going to stack them up, you may as well do it in style with a high-rise, high-tech asymmetrical monstrosity. That’s the Jurong Memoriopolis… though everyone just calls it Jǐzhù. The Spine.
Because that’s exactly what it looks like: a gleaming poly-marble seventy-meter S-curve, with cantilevered levels stacked like vertebrae that each turn separately so the whole thing changes shape throughout the day, with cable-car elevators threading through its core like nerve impulses. It is jaw-dropping to behold, both in its engineering and its garishness. Hey, gotta keep up with Mainland ultra-modern architecture!
So I’m climbing up The Spine, carrying two-fifty-six gigabytes of my father’s life. I’m guilty of trespassing, vandalism, hacking, and fraud. I should be worrying about prison and a helluva caning, but at the moment I’m just preoccupied with not plummeting to my death.
But let me back up a bit and tell you how I got here.
It started a few months ago when I was talking with my recently deceased grandmother. She’d been a doctor, a neurologist, and naturally fascinated with life and death and the intricacies of memory. When she first heard about Memoriopolis, and its plan to host interactive digital recreations of the dearly departed to all who pre-paid for family plots, she signed up that day. For her remaining ten years, she assembled all the recommended components.
She sat for 3D scans of her face and body. Submitted old photos and videos to extrapolate (and reverse) aging. Recorded hours and hours of interviews, answering questions banal and profound, all to optimize her post-mortem simulation. I was a kid when she started, a young man when she passed away. A week after her funeral, she was a life-sized hologram, captured in a pane of glass in one of The Spine’s hundreds of visitation booths, dispensing compassion and wisdom like always.
“How do you feel, Waipo?” I asked her image (one of the recommended “starter questions”).
“I feel wonderful, Daniel,” she answered, her smiling face flicker-free with the top-notch projection system. “I don’t have any pain any more, and a lifetime of cherished memories. It’s so good of you to come and see me.”
I had to admit, the effect was stunning. Her voice, her expression, every little gesture: all my senses—except reason—told me I was speaking to my beloved granny, glowing like a Jedi Force-spirit. Waipo-Wan Kenobi!
“I miss you,” I said. “It’s bizarre. You’re gone, but here you are. Can I ask you anything I want?”
“Anything at all, my dear.”
“But you’re not real. You’re not really you, talking to me from the great beyond.”
“What are any of us, but the collection of our memories?” she replied, with characteristic philosophizing. “I spent years cataloging my life for this, talking to the recorder for hours so the software could learn about me. But it doesn’t matter what I am. Relationships change the people involved, and I’m beyond change now. So the question is: what does this relationship mean to you?”
Jesus! It was exactly the kind of thing she would have said! It tore me apart, sucked me in as it pushed me away. She was there, she was not. She was fake, she was real. Seriously, my compliments to the software engineers but how the hell will anyone deal with grief again with such a beautiful lie to fill the void?
“You’re upset, meh?” she said. “I’m sorry. That’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to preserve what I learned and share it with you. And, whenever you’re ready, I have one last surprise.”
“I bought a block of memory slots here, enough for you and your future wife and children. But I also brought someone with me now. Your mother.”
“Mama’s in there?”
“I gathered everything I could. Photos. Movies. Sometimes we would video-chat when I was at work and she was dealing with a new baby. You were so young when she died, just six. I wanted you to know her the way I did. Do you want to meet her?”
I had the overwhelming instinct to run, just turn and sprint for the elevator. But I couldn’t. I had to see. All I could manage was a dry-throated “Ok.” Enough for grandma’s algorithm, apparently.
Waipo shifted to one side and my mother, not even thirty years old by the look of her, stepped into frame as if she’d been waiting just off-camera.
“Hello, Danny-boy! Look at you, all grown up, tall and handsome! It’s so good to see you again.”
That time, I did run. Not to the elevator, but to the toilet.
Being in The Spine can be nauseating. It moves constantly, every floor continually turning. You don’t feel it—but look out any of the floor-to-ceiling glass walls and you’ll see the landscape inching by. The city, the straits, the hills, the bay… you look and see one view, look again and see another. And don’t even think about going out on a balcony. You know in Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart looks down and the stairwell stretches? That. But worse. I heard the designers had to install extra water closets on each floor.
I managed to get to a sink and lean over with enough time to breathe so, thankfully, everything had a chance to settle. It wasn’t motion sickness. It was… I want to say… more like teleportation. The entire world changed, shifted 180-degrees beneath my feet, and suddenly I was facing something I never imagined: my dead grandma introducing me to my dead mother.
I calmed myself and went back. Someone was using the booth I’d been in—a happy couple holding up a baby for a ghost grandpa—so I took another. The designers were a little vague about where, exactly, they stored remains… but, hey, who cares about a tin of ashes when you can press a fingerprint sensor and your loved ones pop up on any available screen?
“Are you alright, Daniel?” asked Waipo. “Did I upset you?”
“I’m fine. I just… didn’t expect that. Can I see my mother again? I’m ready.”
My mother stepped back in. What she looked like in my memories and what she looked like in pictures never quite matched. But as I stood talking with her, the images converged. She was my mother. Lying on the floor playing cars with me. Cuddling on the couch and watching TV. She remembered the books we’d read. The Amazing Sarong. Jack and Jill at Bukit Timah Hill. She knew the words to “Octopus’s Garden.”
I cried more than I did at Waipo’s bedside, more than at her funeral. Good tears. Big, messy, cleansing tears, washing away the scabs, the hard coverings I’d grown over an empty wound so I could live a life without her. So what if it was an illusion? It was the purest emotion I’d felt in ages.
The sun was setting when I decided it was time to go. I asked mama if I could speak with my grandmother privately. Her software was savvy enough to not point out the ridiculousness of the request, and she blew me a kiss and walked offscreen.
“What about my father?” I asked Waipo.
“He’s not here,” she answered, her smile vanishing. “I didn’t gather any materials for him.”
“Are there any?”
She shrugged. “Some. Wedding pictures and videos. Some from when you were a baby. They took you to Sentosa a few times. They’re in my things somewhere.”
“If I get them, can we put them in here?”
“I didn’t pay for him,” she replied. “You’d have to look into that.”
Waipo got quiet, looked blank, the same way she always had when my father was mentioned.
So, that’s what I’m doing right now: climbing up The Spine—actually, just trying to get from floor six to seven without passing through the elevator checkpoints—so I can upload my deadbeat, jailbird father into this glittering temple of virtual eternity via a terminal I bribed an admin to leave open. I’m risking my life and my freedom for someone who abandoned me.
Is it worth it? That’s a question you well may ask. I’m asking myself that very question at the moment. To fairly ponder an answer, you need to know a little more detail.
I’m Pinoy. Or my father was. Moro, in fact, an ethnic minority of Muslims in Catholic-majority Philippines. He was sent with his older brother to Malaysia after the Malisbong Massacre. You’ve heard of it? You’re not alone if you haven’t.
Fifteen-hundred Muslims killed in a day under Marcos’s martial law. Hundreds of unarmed men shot point-blank. Women herded onto prison ships. The village burned. All officially denied for forty years. I’ve had people tell me it was a hoax, a scam to get government compensation, or just an exaggerated skirmish in a decades-long war with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. I honestly don’t know all the history. This world is so littered with atrocities we’ve learned to shrug them off, segregate them into ghettos of collective memory that become poor taste to discuss. Forgive and forget, they say. But how can you forgive without remembering? Maybe you just forget the unforgivable.
All I know for sure is my father and my uncle arrived as orphans with a boatload of refugees in Sabah. That story I heard enough times as a child to make me a believer. That and the tale of how he later emigrated to Singapore and, against all odds, wooed and won a beautiful young woman from a well-off Peranakan Chinese family.
What’s all this have to do with anything? Long story short: when I was six, my parents left me with my grandmother and took their first vacation. To Bali. Their hotel was bombed. My father survived. My mother did not.
When he came home, he was never the same. Sometimes he was OK. Playful, chatty, kind. Other times he was sullen, withdrawn, angry. For the next three years, my grandmother mostly took care of me. He traveled out of the country. A lot. Burning up what little money he had, until one day we got a message saying he’d been arrested in Manila for attempting to buy weapons for an insurgent group. A few years later, we got a letter saying he died in prison.
You could certainly call the feelings I have toward my father “complicated.” Loss and recrimination, rage and longing—they’re all in the mix. At this point, only the most tenuous threads connect me to him, but I still can’t bring myself to sever them. Flawed however he was, he was my father. And, like my wise grandmother, my compassionate mother, he deserves to be remembered. At least the best parts of him. The rest… well, forgive and forget, right?
Going through my grandmother’s things started as the expected tedium. Most of what was in our apartment—clothes, jewelry, electronics, knick-knacks—I’d already done, so it was now about attacking boxes in a rented storage locker. There I found dozens of photo albums, paper ones as well digital frames so old I had to order special dongles just to plug them in. I’d seen some pictures of my parents, but Waipo had quietly hidden most away after they died. There were hundreds. With me. Without me. Lots of my mother as she was growing up. A few of my maternal grandfather, whom I’d never met. There’s one battered old Polaroid of a family—men in white tunics and caps, women in cloaks and headscarves—posing amidst a festival crowd in front of Tacbil Mosque, giving gap-toothed smiles for the camera. In the front was a toddler I momentarily mistook for myself.
I took high-res shots of the prints, cleaning up any nicks and scratches on my tablet, and downloaded all the digital images I could (a few file formats were so old they wouldn’t convert). There was a stack of boxes that housed reams of paper files. Taxes, loans, contracts, and bills my grandmother had diligently stowed away. Notes and correspondence from research projects she’d worked on over her career. In one box was a handful of bulky, sealed document envelopes. Inside were records of my father’s arrest and trial.
My grandmother, who seemed to shun him for almost as long as I can remember, had spent years hiring lawyers and filing petitions. Court documents and legal briefs outlined charges and testimony. There were pages in Tagalog that, when I ran through a translator, proved to be transcripts of my father’s accusers. There were even some letters, accounts of his trial and day-to-day life in prison, written in my father’s own shaky hand that grew more illegible as the years wore on. In one envelope were compact videocassettes.
It took me a week to find a studio with the equipment needed to digitize those old cassettes. When they finally came on a chip I could read, they contained hours of police interrogations. At first showing my father, staring defiantly into the camera, denying everything. Later, he winced at some questions, stumbled over explanations, as his face began to look more and more gaunt, his manner more subservient. The last showed him as a greasy-hair, sunken-eyed specter, reading in a robotic voice a detailed confession of his crimes. “With full knowledge… I supported the illegal acts… of terrorist insurgents… and I… attempted to aid and abet… their activities… without regard for… authorized law enforcement… or innocent civilians… who might have been harmed.”
I talked to a friend who knew somebody who had contacts at the software developer used by Jurong Memoriopolis. Through a daisy-chain of shady connections, I got a copy of the specs for avatar creation. They explained how to scan flat photos with shadow analyzers to construct 3D facial models. They linked to apps designed to break down audio-visuals into phonemes and mouth movements. They provided tips on stitching it all together for testing with deepfake simulators. Last and most important, you needed to assign every photo, every fragment of every life event, to a precise timeline so the software could parse the sequence of the departed’s memories.
Everything I could gather of my father’s life fit on a memory card smaller than a rice cracker. When I took it to the Memoriopolis sales office, a pretty lady with a smile like a great white told me it would be only twenty-thousand Singapore dollars to purchase an additional slot to add to my grandmother’s account. When I asked if I could use the slot my grandmother had purchased for me, she looked confused, called her supervisor, then said she was deeply sorry but transfers were not permitted according to the terms of service.
I asked another friend who knew a guy who worked for the tech-support company that serviced The Spine’s network. One employee had a hush-hush online gambling problem everyone seemed to know about. For five-hundred Sing he would sign on to monitor during the next overnight diagnostic, go out to get dinner at 10:00pm, and forget to lockdown his workstation in the seventh floor I.T. closest. The Spine was open twenty-four hours for mourning customers, so no problem! The one catch: you could only get to the seventh floor with a biometric vendor ID.
No problem lah, still can! (said my conspirator). Come let me show you!
There’s a folding ladder—We use it sometimes to sneak out of work!—he’d leave down for me. Just wait on a sixth floor balcony until it comes by in rotation. No problem!
Turns out it’s one of those chain ladders you see dangling from helicopters that would be no problem for Batman and pretty much nobody else. But, hey, I had to do an obstacle course for my National Service training—so I say can, lah!
When the sixth and seventh floors are rotating in opposite directions—even though they each move no more than a slow-motion walking pace—that ladder comes at you pretty damn hard. So you grab on and cling like a squirrel until you get the nerve to start climbing. The building keeps turning … so now you’re hanging sixty-meters in the air with nothing below you. You know the “don’t look down” cliché? Believe it. And, even though it’s night, the building is lit by spotlights aiming up from the ground so it feels like the whole world can see you: an inky-dinky spider climbing up the waterspout.
When you finally manage to scramble over the seventh floor railing, you plop onto the concrete balcony and just lie there panting for a while and think, “You know what? Fuck you, Dad.”
But then you get up, realize what you just did, and start to feel like James Freakin’ Bond. You slide open the glass door and find the I.T. closet.
I’m at the terminal, logging in with the admin password my gambler-mole gave me. It works. I enter the account my grandmother bequeathed to me. I’m in. I insert the memory card. All my father’s data uploads to a staging server, pinwheels and status bars tracking his progress toward immortality. I find myself listed as a member in my family plot. I delete my name, date of birth, National Registry number, and input my father’s. One-by-one, I OK each of the data checks.
A pop-up box winks at me: Date of Death?
I have a copy of his death certificate. I type in the date and everything I’ve input splays as thumbnails along a timeline like animated playing cards. Document icons and video loops, speech waveforms and photo stacks: the pulse-points of my father’s life. Over the last decade, I see the miniatures of his face growing more sad and sallow by increments, interspersed with the shield-and-scales crest of the Republic of the Philippines court system. At the end is his cut-off, sticking out like the Changi Airport terminus on the MRT map.
Once on a school trip they took us to Haw Par Villa, a bizzaro theme park filled with painted statues acting out scenes from Chinese folklore. I remember the “Ten Courts of Hell” dioramas showing sinners in the afterlife, facing the “Mirror of Retribution” then being sent on to punishment. Liars with their tongues ripped out. Murders dismembered. The atoned souls at last reach the “Wheel of Reincarnation” and drink the “Five-Flavored Tea of Forgetfulness” before being reborn.
I click on his Date-of-Death. I enter the same as my mother’s. A young married couple, on vacation in Bali, killed together in a tragic attack. The sad, final decade of my father’s life vanishes and his timeline readjusts.
Do you wish to Confirm? asks the screen prompt.
I click: OK.
Thank you for using the Jurong Memoriopolis system. Your data is processing. You will receive a notice once your loved one is ready for interaction.
I wonder how much it will cost me to have gambler-mole forward that notice?
Ah well, at least I don’t have to climb down. The seventh floor I.T. doors open from the inside without an I.D. I take the elevator through the curvy central shaft of The Spine to the lobby. At the security desk, I tap my fingerprint on the exit sensor and wish a hearty Good Evening to the security guard, who appears to be binging Big Brother reruns on his phone.
I step outside, breathe in the warm tropical air, the tension finally starting to ease. In a day or two, I will meet my father, digitally reincarnated thanks to my resourcefulness. A man my own age, yet rich with memories of my happy childhood, delivered into paradise alongside my mother. They gave me life. I gave them eternal happiness, with the remnants of tragedy edited out.
But, of course, that’s not life, is it?
Whatever those things are, they’re not my parents. That’s not my Waipo. They’re a funhouse mirror. I can stand before them, making faces and tilting my head, and delight in the distorted reflections of myself for as long as such self-amusement lasts. Really, they exist only as a network of impulses in my faulty human brain, as protein sequences in my blood. The rest is ash.
I think about what I just did, the risk, the sheer madness of it, and I wonder why. For a father I barely knew? For the sake of old superstitions, some longing for immortality I scoff at but in my heart can’t wholly dismiss?
I realize I don’t entirely understand my own reasoning. The pieces don’t quite fit—but overlaying them is an emotion… a feeling that, more and more, has come to tint my thoughts like a pink-colored shadow: Defiance.
My grandmother said she bought memorial slots for me and my future wife and children. But, of course, I won’t ever have a wife or children in the traditional, government-sanctioned sense. I tried to tell her that years ago, but she wouldn’t hear it because, technically, being gay is a crime in Singapore. Oh, it’s rarely enforced beyond the occasional fine, but in this carefully constructed society, this polished pearl set in a sapphire sea where East and West meet and wealth swirls and everyone has a place in the Master Plan, I am considered an “outrage on decency.” It doesn’t matter that most people politely turned the page. It’s still in the book.
Amidst all this rigidity, this sanitized perfectionism where even grief is plastered over with a numbing semblance of order, I wanted to do something messy and rebellious. Commemorating the fractured life of my gone-forever father just provided an opportunity.
I turn around and look up, see the out-of-bounds spot from which I recently dangled. My body buzzes with the aftershocks of adrenaline, and I have never felt more alive, more thrillingly at peace with what I am:
Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Website: mattmchugh.com