The Dead Body Problem

As a practicing curmudgeon, I now take a deep breath and type feverishly that I am NOT going to write about there being too many people alive on planet Earth. Every intelligent humanist knows about overpopulation, and if you don’t, you are not only not intelligent but also not informed.

There is, however, a teensy problem that is going to get worse. There are also too many DEAD people. Cemeteries are filling up. Many years ago the wonderful science fiction writer Clifford Simak wrote a novel called “Cemetery Earth” which I think about frequently. In it, humanity has moved out to homes in other solar systems (this is fiction, remember) and Earth is used as a cemetery.

Now that you’re all turned off, let me assure you that there are solutions to the Dead Body problem. But first, I will explain what death is.

All life on Earth can be killed in various ways, but only multicellular life has death built in, so to speak. This is called apoptosis. “Apo” is Greek for “separate, away from” and “ptosis” means “a falling.”  Apoptosis means, at rock bottom, death. But it doesn’t mean death by conditions like disease, injury, starvation, thirst, or even being eaten. It means death that’s programmed to happen, the way the gill slits of an early human fetus disappear, or the way deciduous leaves turn pretty colors and drop from the tree in autumn. Most cancer occurs when cells do not die at the programmed time, but continue to multiply.

Here’s where language gets a determined humanist into trouble, for the word “programmed” implies a programmer. People who believe in supernatural programmers rub their hands gleefully and say the “miracle” of apoptosis proves there’s a god. Oh, sure. A god willing to let some bacteria divide forever but not let Homo sapiens off the hook of ultimate death? Let’s agree that there’s no programmer.

Genes that cause apoptosis and genes that suppress it encode proteins that are so similar in both humans and in creatures like Caenorhabditis elegans, the roundworm beloved of researchers, that biologists assume that the regulation of the death called apoptosis might be as old as the invention of the first cells, over 3 billion years ago.

Death is OLD. Even if human life spans are greatly increased, we as a species are probably stuck with death, which means dead bodies. Unfortunately the problem of dead body burial runs into a great many cultural and religious notions. I will only say I think it’s a bad idea to have burial of a dead body in a water-tight casket, using up space and not returning human biochemistry to the Earth.

There are alternatives to whole body burial. Cremation, according to the latest newspaper reports, is fast becoming popular because it—and subsequent cemetery space—often costs less. The burning up of a dead body can contribute to air pollution and uses fossil fuels, but there’s a newer method of chemical destruction that is coming along. In both methods, you’re left with a small pile where there used to be a big person. Now, what does one do with the remains?

  1. Burial in a cemetery.
  2. Burial someplace else—usually illegal but people do it.
  3. Urns sitting on the mantel. Well, ok.
  4. Contents of urns flushed—also illegal.
  5. Add to feed to domestic animals, who are already being fed (and getting diseases from) ground-up bits of each other  NOT A GOOD IDEA.
  6. Put in rockets to be launched at enemy (NOT A GOOD IDEA) or into space (some have had this honor).

There are other disposal methods—one is already operating: adding one’s small pile to the cement that makes artificial reefs. This solves one of the problems of human sentiment. Instead of putting flowers on a cemetery grave, one can scatter them (or fish food) above a reef. Since I’ve spent most of my life trying to be helpful, I like this method.

There is one other potentially helpful way of dead body disposal. Make each small pile part of the nutrition of gardens.  With 7 billion people on Earth, rapidly increasing, we’re going to have to accept using our own waste products instead of dangerous chemical fertilizers. Why not accept crumbled dead bodies?

Environmentally concerned people talk of gardens and greenery on every roof, which will reduce air pollution and carbon dioxide, provide both food and more efficient use of rainfall. And if the human species finally decided that it’s ridiculous to have all our eggs in one basket, we will want greenery and grown food in space colonies.

There should be a Lunar station, easily accessible to Earth and the International Space Station. People will live underground but there will be gardens, lush from recycled human wastes and exhaled carbon dioxide, gardens that give us food and oxygen and soothe the spirit.

I wish I could live long enough to see a colony on Mars, the kind shown in the American Museum of Natural History’s wonderful exhibit of space exploration. I think lots of people would pay to have their remains used to fertilize not only a Martian garden but even the vats of algae that would help humans survive. I would.

Don’t hide or dump dead bodies. Turn them into mantelpiece décor or decorative beads. Use them to help life.