The Good Death: Science Fiction on Memories Retrieved with Scent and Music

How do you want your loved ones to pass? Singing, rituals and family/friends by the bedside are common desires listed across many cultures. What if there was another way to go into that good night with feelings of love and fulfillment? This is a work of science fiction to explore that thought.


Hazel tried her best to stop shaking. She was able to walk to her car, turn on the self-driving mode, and stare out of the window. A spa mood type of music started playing — her car had received messages from her social media that her mom wasn’t doing well and auto-played something gentle — but she felt irritated and shouted out “STOP the music!”

Her mom’s full name was Jennifer Loh. She had worked for many years as a teacher, moved to the South for a decade of retirement, and then moved back North to be near her grandchildren, Asher and Wyatt. Hazel thought to herself, is this the beginning of the obit?

Hazel’s mother was dying.

Sometimes dying in a hospital isn’t sudden. It can take days, weeks, or months. Mom had been admitted for something so simple, but things spiraled out of control and now things were really beyond hope. She was extremely pissed off that she couldn’t speed this model of car up, floor the power, risk getting caught by ticketing agents but possibly get to the hospital quicker.

A Curious Conversation

After gaining admittance to her mother’s room, a nurse pulled Hazel aside.

“Dr. Monroe would like to talk to you. In person.”

The nurse raised her scanner and transferred the private contact information to Hazel’s device. This was very unusual, as so much of terminal care communication with next of kin was now done via video-conferencing bots. Many doctors also desired to reduce their liability so their speech was now mostly filtered through their legal chat-bot systems. But sometimes, face-to-face time was still allowed. The nurse was certain Hazel would want to talk to Dr. Monroe.

Surprisingly, Dr. Monroe was already in the hospital. Hazel was led to a conference room overlooking the mountains.

“Hello Hazel!” and Hazel’s hand met the doctor’s hand in a firm, warm handshake.

“Hi. Uh, so what’s this all about?”

“Do you mind signing this waiver before we speak further?” a contract appeared in the corner of the room. Hazel asked her device to check the validity of the contract, and once it superimposed a quick checkmark on the contract, Hazel nodded in approval while blinking twice and her signature appeared at the bottom.

“You see, the venture capitalists did a final financial feasibility study and decided it was unwise to fund something that can’t be proven with data. Data was very big back then, relied upon so much —almost to a fault if you ask me. We still can’t prove what happens after death. So the project of a passionate entrepreneur was judged not worth the effort, and the founder became distraught and reclusive. We also believe now that the technology to isolate the brain patterns of a smell and song can be more accurately replayed in the brain via modern methods. It’s just expensive because it’s not commonly done.”

“Wow! Wait, I’m missing the story. What exactly are we talking about?”

“Ah, right. I apologize, I’ve studied this field for years. So to make this story short, for a small monetary incentive and because she thought it was interesting, your mother participated in a short-lived but neat prototype of a conjoined olfactory auditory memory retrieval system.”

“Why am I here?”

“Well, it’s all about the contracts. When rounding up test participants, the paperwork had a clause that all the folks involved would have the option to use the device when they died. I have no idea who let that slide, but there you go. Here’s the list, and I’ll bring the box in shortly.”

“No, I mean why am I here today.”

“I thought you might want to know a little more about your mother before she passes.”

Memories

Hazel was provided the list of the memories, and the attached song and a smell. She had a lyric sheet.

  1. My sixteenth birthday with my Dad, Mom and sister in the living room. Music: Perez Prado’s recording of “Apple White and Cherry Blossom Pink”. Smell: Cardboard sleeve of a vinyl record, chocolate cake.
  2. Wedding with David! Dancing, so much dancing. So many people I loved in one place. Amazing. Music: Outkast “Hey Ya!”. Smell: Perfume called “Soirée Magnifique”
  3. A weekend afternoon on vacation with family in the countryside. Music: Debussey “La Mer” Smell: Lavender, seaside/beach.
  4. Sitting in the big chair next to a window with little Hazel while pregnant with Mark. Music: I’ll Fly Away, “Sung by someone in person, if possible”. Alison Krauss otherwise. Smell: Fresh-baked apple pie.
  5. The hiking trip with Isabella many years ago. My closest friend for so long. Music: Queen “Who Wants to Live Forever”. Smell: A little smoke, fresh air, coffee, old books.

Hazel read the list. Typical of her mother to have a one-sentence summary of each memory! Her parents had really loved each other. Isabella had been her Mom’s best friend for over 40 years. Her mother had provided a mostly wonderful childhood full of vacations, books, cupcakes, playdates. Everything made sense to her except Number 4. She wasn’t provided with a summary of what her mother remembered. She couldn’t read her brain. Hazel only knew that her little brother had passed away early and it had caused her mother great pain.

Last rites

Dr. Monroe brought in a small box made of smooth chestnut wood. It was carved into a sphere and fit perfectly into her hand, and had some small holes in the top. Was is a speaker or perfume mister? It was a cheerful and finely crafted little thing, so rare in her world of shiny objects. In this hospital with all the sterile wrappers, rubbers, repetitive patterns and beige.

“How do I play it?”

“Gently press the button in on the bottom. That turns on the scent diffusion. Then turn the small wind-up key underneath. It can play approximately 500 times with the scent, or indefinitely for the music as long as the spring mechanism isn’t damaged”.

Dr. Monroe left the room. Hazel went to sit by the window. She pressed the button, turned the key.

The first song began to play. Hazel saw her mom’s eyes open and look right at her.

She placed the sphere on the table next to the bed.

She took hold of her mother’s hand.

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