“We must give back to Nature what she has lent us.
We must return from whence we came.”
-Gomberville, La doctrine des moeurs
Matter cannot be destroyed.
So physics tells us.
There is only a finite amount of matter to go around. At this very moment, dear living person, some of it belongs to you. The atoms that make up your body— your liver, your hair, your brain, your fingernails— are all on loan from the universe. While you are alive, the atoms have come together to make you. As soon as you are dead, they begin their dispersal back into the wide world.
That is what decomposition is. It is the science of sending back everything the universe loaned you. The universe will reuse it as it sees fit. Perhaps to help make an eggplant or an aardvark or perhaps even to make other, new humans.
Human beings have the somewhat unique misfortune of living almost our whole lives knowing that we are going to die. No matter what we create, or how much money we make, or how many children we have— we will die. Our own decomposition is a horrifying thought because it means that we have to give up the control we worked so hard for. Our bodies are not flawless immortal temples. Like it or not, they are akin to the deer on the side of the road or a cut of expired beef. We are simply an organism on this earth like all others, made to rot, to decay.
If we work towards accepting, not denying, our decomposition, we can begin to see it as something beautiful. More than beautiful— ecstatic. The ecstasy of decay begins as disgust and revulsion, the way we feel when we imagine ourself as a corpse. But disgust and revulsion turn to pleasure as we use that feeling to realize we are alive now. We will someday be dead, but today blood pumps through our veins and breath fills our lungs and we walk the earth.
Daily meditations on decomposition are nothing new. The Buddhists meditate on the ten stages of human decomposition of the corpse. The masters would even visit charnel houses to interact with the decomposing bodies themselves. Medieval Christians had paintings of decomposing, dancing corpses lining the walls of their churches to warn the living their time would come. The philosopher Cioran wrote that each man should be “meditating upon his own carrion.”
One step we can take towards accepting and living with our decomposition is to plan for a natural, also known as green, burial.
Natural burial means your body is placed directly into the ground with only a shroud or biodegradable casket. It is how humans have been buried for thousands of years. The simple equation of body, dirt, bugs, bacteria, and decomposition. A few short weeks and you are nothing but skeleton, all other parts of you having gone their separate ways.
Natural burial is horribly out of place in our modern death system, where we are sold $10,000 caskets with titanium plating and a vacuum seal, sold the idea that they will preserve us— protect us from the vile, natural elements. Then we take those expensive caskets and bury them with a concrete or metal burial vault surrounding them, another layer of protection. Then it’s only a matter of a gravestone, like a cherry atop the death denial sundae. It is a false promise of everlasting preservation that we’ve been terrified into embracing.
When making choices about what to do with your body, be creative. Spend your life dreaming big dreams of being set alight on a Viking ship, having your ashes scattered in the Alps, or being suspended from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel— you yourself can be the art of mortality. If you can make it happen, live that death dream and be a hero to us all. But if those dreams do not come true, please consider choosing to decompose. It’s what your dead body so clearly wants to do. Give it what it wants, won’t you?