When I die, I want to return to the elements. In the best case scenario, I’ll be food. I mean, I suppose the bacteria get us all, unless we’re cremated, but I don’t want to be locked inside a coffin, with most of my potential nutrient value going to waste. This obsession has led to several funeral fantasies, which I like share with Erik spontaneously, usually while we’re grocery shopping or something, much to his dismay. I think he’s pretty much praying statistics will hold true and he’ll predecease me.
Fantasy 1: A longstanding fantasy is that I be disposed of “Viking style”, i.e., being laid out in a boat (a rowboat would do, seeing as Viking longboats are hard to come by) and burnt on the water with Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song cranked in the background. Skál!
But now I know two things. One is that the Vikings buried their dead in boats–they did not burn them. Probably because that method wouldn’t work very well, and Vikings were practical folk. You can’t generate sufficient heat in an open boat to render the body to ash, so (best case scenario) the body will end up in the water, which is okay (as far as I, the deceased would be concerned, see fantasy #2) but not such a good thing for anyone who finds my barbequed corpse floating about, nor such a good thing in smaller bodies of water, where I’d be a pollutant.
A low end version of this would be setting my ashes afloat in a wicker basket and using it for target practice with flaming arrows, while the Immigrant Song plays. Not great, because my ash is feeding no one, and it cost a lot of BTUs to turn me to ash, but at least I’d not be in a coffin, and there would be fire and arrows.
Fantasy 2: As a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s novels of Royal Navy life in the 18th and early 19th centuries, I’d be totally happy to be wrapped in a piece of sailcloth with a ball of roundshot between my feet, and then tipped overboard into the briny deep. I’d love to feed the fishes.
Turns out this is actually possible! I will not be saluted by the dashing officers of the quarterdeck, but my shrouded body can be pitched overboard at sea. It’s a thing! It’s called a “full-body maritime burial”. In the U.S. you just need to be in Federal Waters, at least 3 miles off shore and in water at least 600 ft. deep. It turns out there’s a joint that works out of Long Beach Harbor which does this for you. Erik, are you taking notes?
Fantasy 3: Composting. I’d love to be composted. Compost is life, and it is what I’d most like my body to become when I die. But I used to imagine that the only way to successfully compost a human body would be to first break it down into a manageable pile of nitrogen by sending it through a chipper/shredder (the head! I know!)– which would be very distressing to the bereaved –though no skin off my deceased nose. So to speak.
In my imaginings of an enlightened future in which we’d all be composted, the chipper/shredder would be artfully re-branded as the “Unity Machine” So instead of saying, “Toss the old gal into the chipper” you’d say, “Pass her through the Unity Machine, so she might quickly return to the Earth.” Much nicer.
But it turns out that you may not need the chipper after all. I just came across some old notes containing a method for composting human or animal remains. This is the source of the diagram at top.
This would be highly illegal, no doubt, so I hesitate to say where I learned this.
And I have no idea if it would work.
The knowledge was passed through a line of teachers committed to the soil (…I heard it from X, who heard it from Y, who heard it from Z …) I don’t know if any of them has actually tried this, or if this is all theoretical. In other words, This is presented for entertainment purposes only!
I will say that I was told that the ultimate source of the idea was Malcolm Beck. Now, I don’t know if Malcolm Beck developed this specific methodology I’m sharing with you or not, but in my researches I have found this essay by him on his own longing for composting burials, titled Pushing Up Daisies. In it, he points out that even a large body will not last long in an active compost pile, but he does not speak of this specific method I’m sharing with you today.
I don’t want to either steal his credit for this idea or saddle him with it. I’ll just say he was mentioned when I learned this. And if he did not develop the method, I expect he’d appreciate the spirit of thing.
So, the following instructions and the diagram above are the totality of my notes and knowledge of the subject:
A Hypothetical Method of Composting Humans or Animals:
- This is entirely above ground.
- First you build a platform of sticks/small logs to provide drainage and aeration, about 1.5 feet high.
- The deceased is placed on the stick pile.
- The body is covered with a 1 foot layer of mixed greens and browns–the makings of compost.
- Then over that goes a massive pile of carbonaceous material (“browns”: dry leaves, wood shavings, etc.). This layer is to be 10 to 12 feet deep. Huge! It’s role is to absorb putrefying gases.
- Let the pile sit for two years.
- Every month or so, go out and sniff around. If you smell anything, add more carbon.
I’d be tempted to use a thicker layer of compost directly on the body. One foot doesn’t seem enough – but I’m not sure what sort of reaction would occur between the “purifying layer”– as its called in my notes–and the thick carbon layer. It may be enough to create a hot zone all around.
If I lived on a nice spread somewhere out in the country, I’d test this out on roadkill as an experiment. On an unfortunate opossum, say. I would not try it with a beloved pet (much less a relative!) because I well remember the day my dogs dug up my hamster, Feisty, from his quiet grave and returned his dessicated body to my feet. In other words, the pile seems prone to predation.
In Pushing Up Daisies, Malcom Beck envisions big, portable, wire mesh composting bins designed for funerary purposes. Something like that would be appropriate here, as well.