Back in high school (around the late 2010s) we were given a story to read as part of our English class. I don't remember the name, just the major plot points.

The story begins with the narration of a man in his grave. He describes how he can hear the world above changing. At some point activity in the graveyard he is buried in disturbs him to the point that he climbs out of his grave. He finds that the graveyard is being demolished. He finds this abhorrent and moves on to either figure out why it's happening or simply to just explore the unfamiliar world. He stumbles across a street in which children are playing after dark and notes how when he was young, he would have been brought inside by then. He also notes that no one seems to be afraid of anything anymore.

He later learns that the bodies being dug up as well as anyone who dies are incinerated in huge machines. Towards the end of the story he is invited to talk by a police officer who offers the man a cigarette. The cop ends the conversation by noting that he knows the man is unnatural or something to that effect. The cop figured this out by the fact that even though the man had been talking with a cigarette in his mouth, he never exhaled smoke. The cop either arrests the man and takes him to the nearest incinerator where he is forced inside. As the man is incinerator he laments about what the world had become.


1 Answer 1


"Pillar of Fire", a novelette by Ray Bradbury; first published in Planet Stories, Summer 1948, available at the Internet Archive; also at Project Gutenberg. You may have read it in one of these compilations.

ISFDB synopsis:

A man who died in 1933 finds himself awakening in 2349 as his grave is being excavated, as all dead people are now being cremated as part of an effort to eliminate any dark or disturbing influences, including the work of Bierce, Poe, Lovecraft, etc.; the rage this generates within him at the loss of an important part of human heritage is the force which animates him as he resolves to create an army of others like him and reverse the trend.

Story excerpt:

McClure said, "At first I thought it was the finest psychosis I have ever seen. You, I mean. I thought, he's convinced himself, Lantry's convinced himself, he's quite insane, he's told himself to do all these little things." McClure talked as if in a dream, and continued talking and didn't stop.

"I said to myself, he purposely doesn't breathe through his nose. I watched your nostrils, Lantry. The little nostril hairs never once quivered in the last hour. That wasn't enough. It was a fact I filed. It wasn't enough. He breathes through his mouth, I said, on purpose. And then I gave you a cigarette and you sucked and blew, sucked and blew. None of it ever came out your nose. I told myself, well, that's all right. He doesn't inhale. Is that terrible, is that suspect? All in the mouth, all in the mouth. And then, I looked at your chest. I watched. It never moved up or down, it did nothing. He's convinced himself, I said to myself. He's convinced himself about all this. He doesn't move his chest, except slowly, when he thinks you're not looking. That's what I told myself."

The words went on in the silent room, not pausing, still in a dream. "And then I offered you a drink but you don't drink and I thought, he doesn't drink, I thought. Is that terrible? And I watched and watched you all this time. Lantry holds his breath, he's fooling himself. But now, yes, now, I understand it quite well. Now I know everything the way it is. Do you know how I know? I do not hear breathing in the room. I wait and I hear nothing. There is no beat of heart or intake of lung. The room is so silent. Nonsense, one might say, but I know. At the Incinerator I know. There is a difference. You enter a room where a man is on a bed and you know immediately whether he will look up and speak to you or whether he will not speak to you ever again. Laugh if you will, but one can tell. It is a subliminal thing. It is the whistle the dog hears when no human hears. It is the tick of a clock that has ticked so long one no longer notices. Something is in a room when a man lives in it. Something is not in the room when a man is dead in it."

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    That's the one! Thank you so much for the links and the help! Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 1:49
  • 1
    @MintySweeTea You're welcome!
    – user14111
    Commented Jun 7, 2022 at 3:00

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