Death becomes us: your thoughts on the human body

By | August 9, 2007

I was going to do a post on the first day of school – today is the first day of school here where I live (YAY!), but as I was driving my ever-more impressive 13 year-old daughter Kelsey to school she and I had a most interesting conversation – and as most interesting conversations do, it has inspired a blog post. The conversation began modestly enough – about a topic-of-the-day, namely the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota. The local radio station was talking about the rescue divers finding more dead bodies in the water. She commented on how – let’s see, what were the exact words she used, in 13-yr-old-speak? “EWWW, NASTY!! that would be!!” I recounted a story of how, many years ago I was a part of a volunteer Search & Rescue squad in south Georgia (when I co-owned a dive store) and I had experience finding a dead body first-hand – and that it wasn’t a big deal. I mean, after all, at that point it is just a meat sack. It is no different than finding a bigassed dead fish in the water, when you think about it.

You would think that a) I would have said that for shock value (I didn’t) and b) that Kelsey would have freaked out at that statement (she didn’t). Those of you who have met Kelsey, and who know me, know better. Kelsey is, without question, one of the brightest and most thoughtful 13 year olds I have ever met – and I am not just saying that because she is my daughter. She takes in and measures everything she hears – she delights in “new input”, and she knows that I don’t give her new input for no reason (OK, sometimes I do just for fun, but in this case she knew that I had a purpose – that I was going somewhere with it).

So, we began a conversation about the human body and the “stigma” and superstition placed upon it by our society. I could see the wheels turning and the lights going off in her heads – new pathways were firing in that head of hers, and I gotta say there is no greater joy to me than when I see her thinking in ways she’s never thought before. We reached the school, and we were at the point of discussing my own body at my death – she asked, “so, when you die?” I said, “Honey, you can cut me up and feed me to the dogs. What matters is what we – you and I – shared together when we lived – not what happens to this meat sack when I am dead. I promise you, I won’t care.” And with that, she giggled and got out of the car for school.

Now, I’d like to continue this conversation here, because I do think it is an interesting one – not only for atheists like me, but for religious folks as well. For instance, I know that there are strict rules about the handling of the dead amongst those of the Jewish faith; I also understand the reasoning behind this from a historical perspective, because the priests at the time figured out that if you left those damn dead stinking rotting corpses lying around there were much higher incidences of disease, so they – excuse me, God – came up with strict rules about the timing and ritual of dead disposal. Smart stuff (actually many of the rules in the Jewish faith are the reason why they have survived so long – there is a great deal of wisdom in those rules, when put in the perspective of the times). But what about other faiths? Or your personal views?

Now, this next part I posted about briefly in 2005, but I am going to bring it up again, since this really is a different context.

I am not talking about all the extra crap around a death – the funeral, etc. We all know that a funeral is for the living – the dead could care less, because, let’s face it, they’re dead. Funerals allow families and loved ones to gain closure on their loss. I get that.

But after a person is dead – their human spirit is gone, they’ve shuffled off their mortal coil, etc. – you’re simply left with a decomposing meat sack, to be brutally honest. What is our hang-up with what happens to that meat sack? It seems to me what is important is the life we live – not what happens to our rotting corpse.

Oh, and what the hell is with the concept of PRESERVING your body after you’re dead? That, folks, is freaky.

WARNING:The next portion of this bloglet is going to be GRAPHIC. I am going to discuss decomposing bodies and other nastiness. If you have a weak stomach, move along. You have been warned.

What is up with this whole interment and imbalment thing? Now I know there are some faiths that require burial of the body – Judaism is one, I believe – but overall I don’t get it. You’re dead – remember the whole “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” thing? Why in the world would anyone want to inject preservatives into their corpse, then hermetically seal it in not one but two airtight containers (the coffin and the sarcophagus)? Why would you want to preserve the corpse? Oh, and let’s clear up that “preserve” misnomer as well. A body that is embalmed and sealed in a coffin and sarcophagus is not “preserved”. When processed this way a corpse goes through a process (autolysis and putrifaction) where it is converted to a predominately alkaline state known as adipocere, or “grave wax“.

Let me put that into layman’s terms. An embalmed and interred body gets converted to, well, soap.

I mean, I would get it if you let the mortician do some type of preservation, such as an embalming, to preserve and enhance the body for a viewing – if the viewing/service isn’t going to be for a few days after death. But why the airtight coffin and crypt? Why impede the natural process of letting the corpse return to the earth? Why not simply get planted in a pine box (ok, make it pretty if you want, but not such that it won’t break down), and let nature do what nature does?

I just don’t get it – in MY opinion attempts to preserve a body (especially if it is your own wishes) is vainglorious. Why not be buried in such a way as to break down naturally as quickly as possible – obviously within health codes? Me personally, I am going to be cremated (or, as mentioned earlier, Kelsey can feed me to the dogs :) ). But, my question remains – I want to understand the reasoning and thought process behind preserving a body after you’re dead – why?

So, if you have an opinion, or can explain this to me, please do so.

**If you ever catch on fire, avoid looking in a mirror. I’d bet that’s what REALLY throws you into a panic.