Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Some Stray Thoughts Inspired by Recent Personal Events

First, I give my traditional apology for being out of circulation for an excessive amount of time. My reasons will become clear in this post.

On Friday, March 10, at 5:17 PM PST, my cousin Wendy Valdez (nee Jiminez) died. The specific circumstances are not important at the moment, and I will not go into the details. Suffice it to say that it was a shock that affected my entire family and a number of friends profoundly. Wendy will be missed by all who knew her.

I have lived a life that has shielded me from mortality for the most part except for the last few years, and not with the intervention of overprotective parents. My family is long lived, and my friends have been lucky. This has not meant that I haven't contemplated death, both my own and those of the people around me. My cousin Jeff (Wendy's brother) and I have been discussing the matter since we were old enough to understand the concept. When we were teenagers, we swapped our desires as what we would like done with our remains. At the time, I had two alternatives, presented here in order of preference:

1) My body should be cooked up and served at my memorial service.
2) Barring that, it should be carted into the mountains, unembalmed, and left in a shallow grave, subject to the natural forces of decay.

In subsequent years, I have rethought both, but the essence is the same. Cannibalism has its own complications--medically, socially, and emotionally (for some people)--so that's a wash. Option 2 is out for various legal reasons.

However, I have since formed strong feelings about the matter that I am much better able to articulate.

A traditional burial has numerous problems. It involves embalming, which is a largely outdated practice. It takes a body out of the natural cycle of decay for a very long time. It invokes additional expenses that I see as unnecessary--my family doesn't need to go to extraordinary expense simply to memorialize me; I'm gone, they're alive, and I'm not going to know the difference; my family could use the money more than I can.

Cremation is the option that a lot of people in my position take. It's cheap; it's easy to imbue the death with the necessary significance by spreading the ashes in some meaningful place. Virtually every atheist I know opts for this path, and I can see the reasons. However, I have a major philosophical objection to the whole process.

The chemical processes associated with all living things produce a lot of complex organic molecules. This is, in some ways, the work of life. We build proteins, amino acids, ATP, sugars; all of these things are transferrable, in whole or in part, to the various bacterial and animal life that are the forces of decay. Cremation reduces all of this complexity down to a pile of relatively common molecules (mostly carbon) and two things that are relatively plentiful in the universe: heat and light. Heat is the ultimate destination of all the energy there is--it's the end product of entropy, and, if many cosmologists are correct about the value of the cosmological constant, where everything is ultimately going to end up. Why help it along? Why not rage against the dying of the light? Nothing cheats death forever, but we can at least contribute the the team's effort--help the cause of life hang on just a little longer.

But how? It seems like lawmakers and the mortuary industry conspire against such an end. The answer for me (barring an "accident" transporting my body by private airplane over impenetrable wilderness or international waters), is the Body Farm
, a forensic anthropology lab that essentially gathers data on the process of natural decay in order to facilitate criminal investigations and further the sciences of physical anthropology and archaeology. This has the added bonus of contributing to the body of scientific knowledge in a field that I know and respect (my mother is trained as an archaeologist, which is where I lost a lot of my squeamishness about human remains).

Anyway, it's all food for thought--and worms.


  1. A spammer--does that mean you've officially arrived?

    Interesting post, by the way. I hadn't really thought of burial in those terms, but I'm going to have to take a look at the Body Farm.

  2. We belong! Ah, looks like we'll have to do that thingy where you have to type in a code to post.

    Sous Rature actually caught me unaware with the Body Farm. I knew he had issues with what was supposed to be done with his body, but I didn't know he had found this. I'm having to look into it too.

  3. Maybe we could talk that spammer into secret shopping the Body Farm.