Every so often someone gets an idea so brilliant and original that it becomes an instant phenomenon, guaranteeing its creator immeasurable wealth and a place in the pantheon of entrepreneurial geniuses. And then there are ideas like Paul Kinsella's.
Paul, 31, is a stock clerk and freelance cartoonist from New Athens, Ill. He had his brainstorm and set about creating a Web site to introduce a new commercial enterprise. Despite some favorable publicity, for some reason he has yet to find his first customer. He hopes it will be me.
Me: Please explain the principle behind AfterlifeTelegrams.com.
Paul: We send a telegram to a dead person on your behalf.
Me: And how do you do this?
Paul: We give your message to someone who is terminally ill, he memorizes it, and when he gets to the afterlife, he finds your person and delivers it. We charge $5 a word, 100 words max.
Me: It's sort of a dead-letter office.
Paul: You could say that!
Me: So, this hasn't exactly caught on?
Paul: I asked a psychic why, and she said most people seem interested in getting messages from the afterlife, not to the afterlife.
I visited Paul's Web site, which takes itself quite seriously. If you are planning to message a recently deceased person, you are required to certify that you are no longer grieving. This is so Paul can't be accused of taking advantage of the distraught. For similar reasons of taste, he has no plans to solicit the dying as his messengers. He has one person on hand, a friend of his with serious liver problems. Beyond that, he hopes potential messengers will contact him. Their families get the money: Paul plans to take his profits only through Web traffic to the site and its links.
Me: There are about 18 times as many dead people from all of time as there are people living on Earth today, not counting dead Neanderthals and Australopithecans, who might well have souls, albeit really scruffy ones. So the population of the afterlife would be at least 18 times larger than that of Earth. What makes you think that your messenger could even find the right person?
Paul: That's a good point. If it's all random and chaotic, that's gonna stop him. But we would hope that they have worked out some sort of registry.
Me: What if the Hindus are right and we are reincarnated as cows? And you'd have all these cows with elaborate AfterlifeTelegrams.com messages they are contractually obligated to deliver to other cows, but they have no way to do it. Imagine the frustration. Isn't that cruel?
Paul: I admit reincarnation might screw things up.
Me: What if the dead person is in Hell? Would your messenger have to go there to find him?
Paul: Yes, he has to do everything within reason.
Me: Including confronting Satan?
Paul: You might not have to. It might just be like visiting someone in prison. You might just have to go up to the Plexiglas and knock.
Me: What guarantee can you give that the terminally ill person won't be a prankster and deliver a subversive message, causing great consternation among the dead? For example, let's say the paid-for message is, "Mom, I love you." But the delivered message is, "Dad says he slept with your sister."
Paul: We will seek messengers of high moral character.
Me: I know you don't intend to transmit nasty messages. But what if people cross you up? For example, a person could send a nice, chatty telegram to his deceased ex-wife that says, "I miss your cooking, but Wally made a nice stew." You'd send that, right?
Me: Well, what if Wally was her schnauzer?
So, although Paul and I agreed there were still some wrinkles to be ironed out, I nonetheless decided to become his first customer. Creating the message was an interesting challenge. Since you can't count on an answer, or even a return receipt, your message isn't the beginning of a dialogue, it's the whole ballgame. You need to go for maximum impact.
My first idea was to telegram Karl Marx: GOT ANY MORE GREAT IDEAS, MEATHEAD?
But then I realized something: The people in the afterlife probably are just as clueless about the goings-on here as we are about their world. For all Marx knows, the world is a worker's paradise by now. That's precisely why Paul's service is of value. It's a chance to deliver information the deceased couldn't otherwise get, and about which they would be curious.
And that opens all sorts of possibilities.
I considered various approaches. Here's the telegram I settled on and paid for, the very first message to be delivered by AfterlifeTelegrams.com:
TO ADOLF HITLER STOP HOT ENOUGH FOR YOU STOP I AM HONORED TO BRING YOU GREETINGS FROM THE CHANCELLOR OF GERMANY, HYMAN MANDELBAUM.