I’ve written extensively here about the alternative death movement, possibly because I am morbid, but also I’m really into dead people, into cultural traditions, into how things work, into practicalities. Like, a lot of people die annually all over the world from all sorts of things, which raises the critical question of what we do with all those bodies. Culturally, we’ve decided that while the soul — the thing that makes us us, the thing that makes us alive, the thing that encompasses our being — flees the body at the time of death, the body itself is also a sacred item. People have been performing rituals around death and the body for millennia, and some animals do it too — in fact, I would argue that mourning in some degree is true of many animal species, and it’s a sharp display of sentience, an awareness of mortality, the loss of permanency.
Deciding what to do with those bodies is challenging. We can hold meaningful rituals over them, we can have ceremonies where we talk about the deceased, but at some point we are going to be faced with the physical challenge of doing something with it, since we can’t make it vanish into thin air. Mummification was a thing for some, leaving bodies exposed for the animals and birds was another, and burial got awfully popular — to the point that burial space is actually becoming a significant problem in many areas of the world. Some people are more into burning bodies, which can be both efficient and symbolic, a shedding of the past, a freeing of the chains of the body.
Some bodies disappear quietly into the world, never found, or found only years later, as skeletal remains, shreds of their former selves. There’s a part of me that kind of likes the idea of being slowly consumed by nature this way, scattered, parts drifting through the landscape, but also, lots of people wouldn’t be too pleased to find bits of a dead body while hiking, which is understandable. I’m not afraid of dead things and I don’t think they’re gross, but I could see why others are, or how someone might be concerned, wondering if perhaps I wasn’t supposed to be there.
Really, the only place you can be left to naturally disintegrate in peace (pieces?) these days is a body farm, where researchers study how you return to the earth in various thrilling ways, with the purpose of assisting with homicide investigations. That’s definitely a way to go and an option I’ve thought about, since my body would be quite useful that way, serving some kind of function and also breaking down in a way that returns something to the earth — technically I could also donate my body to other research, or fork over my organs, but it would eventually be buried or cremated at the other end (what was left of it), which is fine, but also not what I really want.
Which is why human composting intrigues me. A number of innovators are exploring ways of breaking down the body through composting, and while it poses some challenges, it’s also something that embodies (haha) the ideals to which I aspire, as a future corpse: Instead of adding to the burdens we’ve piled onto the Earth, I’m offering something back. I’m not wasting all those juicy nutrients by going up in a rush of flame, or being buried underground to slowly break down and take up space (were I to be buried, I’d want to be shrouded or buried in a plain wooden coffin out somewhere in nature, with a rock or something stuck on top if people really want to find me again, because people seem to be into that).
But composting generates something cool and usable: It generates soil, rich, nutritious soil, the stuff of life. Soil that can be used to grow wonderful things — because people are squeamish, probably ornamental things, but perhaps someday norms would change, and the compost made from deceased humans could be used to grow food, too — I like the idea of being the soil for someone’s raspberries, the thing that someone pours into their cucumber patch at the start of spring. The great thing about composting is that it works best en masse, in a facility with materials like wood chips to increase the heat, speed decomposition, and facilitate breakdown (a stack of rotting bodies would be gross and also not an efficient composting method).
That means that my constituent parts are never reunited. They break away, mingle, turn into something else. Anyone who picks up a sack of dirt from the compost depot gets a little piece of me and it travels with them to wherever they go. I go to municipal parks, to rose gardens, to window boxes. I am everywhere and nowhere. I am gone and eternal. I am dead but still useful.
I don’t believe in the soul: I think when we’re dead, we’re just dead, and that’s how it goes. But I do believe that the body has tremendous capacity to be something of utility, not just a nuisance to be disposed of in the most efficient manner possible for the setting. I believe in our capacity as smart, thinking creatures to do the right thing at least occasionally, to turn from selfishness and vanity to something else.
When I die, I want people to throw a big party, to walk through my house and take what they like, to prop me up under a shady tree so I can oversee the festivities, and then to throw me in the back of the pickup and take me down to the compost depot, where I’ll start a journey that only goes one way, one they won’t follow, but one they’ll read about on the postcards I send home now and then.
Image: Shrouded, Andrew Flenniken, Flickr