THINK YOU’RE not going anywhere when you die? Of course, we all eventually “return” to the earth in one form or another after the lights go out. And while we certainly don’t want to preoccupy ourselves with death or the exact way our bodies will undergo the transformation, humanists may feel some affection for the idea of a gentler path to worm food, as explored in this issue’s cover story on environmentally friendly burial (“A Green Hereafter”) by Deborah June Goemans.
“Return naturally,” intone the promoters of eco-funerals, making the case that traditional burials and even cremation aren’t environmentally friendly compared to coffins made of easily decomposed materials buried in unmanicured cemeteries.
Romanticizing the idea of said path—the ecology of the dead returning to the earth and feeding worms, which then provide food to other species—certainly isn’t new. “Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate and drift, through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me,” Samuel Beckett mused. “A ton of worms in an acre, that is a wonderful thought, a ton of worms, I believe it.” Or, as the British theologian, logician, and religious Nonconformist Isaac Watts so aptly put it: “Let me be dressed fine as I will/Flies, worms, and flowers, exceed me still.” What’s new is the responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of one’s demise.
The treatment of the body after death has varied greatly among the world’s religions. Christianity generally allows for embalming; traditional Jewish law forbids embalming or cremation; and for Muslims who follow Sharia law, because the corpse must be buried as soon as possible after death, embalming and cremation are forbidden. The art and science of embalming does, however, have a long history across cultures. The Ancient Egyptians believed a person’s soul could return to the body after death if the corpse was properly mummified. Antiquated embalming fluids and, later, arsenic, formaldehyde, ethanol, and other solvents made it possible to preserve cadavers for medical or scientific use, and also for funeral purposes. In war, for example, preservation of a body was necessary to return it to the family. And even today, the idea persists that viewing the preserved body and face of a deceased loved one can help the grieving accept that person’s death.
With the countless dollars people now spend on plastic surgery and fillers—I recently read about newly engaged women spending thousands to hide the veins in their hands in order to take selfies of their newly ringed fingers—it looks like our modern age may just be remembered for starting the embalming process pre-mortem. But as the earth’s inhabitants shed ceremonial and dogmatic ritual in favor of artful conservation (oh, what a lovely thought), we should expect to see a great many creative and sustainable practices replace the old ways. Writing herein on the topic of creativity, Janet Asimov points out that a creative act transcends traditional rules. Incidentally, she also lists a number of creative ideas she finds beautiful, one of which is: “Each of us is an ecosystem.”
It’s summertime, so things are green and growing in the issue at hand; creations and curiosities abound.