Absolute rotter

Charles Cowling

Here is the best post this blog will ever publish, so don’t glance at its length and give up. Read on!

Today is all about Bill Jordan. I first heard from Bill back in December 2010. This is what he said:

I am an aging reformed biologist, now more or less a writer, but more accurately a philosopher-poet-canary-priest, and I have come upon some uncommon conclusions on the proper relationship between man and nature in the course of my time on this remarkable planet. These will be set forth in more detail in a book I am writing, presuming I have the time to complete it. But considering my age (66) and heart condition, I must be realistic and plan for my return to the liberated molecules.

I have found my own spirituality in biology and this now sustains me with remarkable equanimity. It is based on how the natural world functions–how it lives–and I wish my remains to return to the living molecular plasma that the surface of the earth nurtures and maintains. Consequently, I am almost obsessed with having my corpse laid out upon the surface, to fulfill the needs of the natural world. I am attaching a short musing on the subject.

Anyhow, such a disposition is simply blasphemous to normal, traditional societies, and I will have to work hard to fulfill my wishes. My question to you is simply to ask your initial reaction to such an odd request. Of course if you have any notions of how my wishes could be carried out, I would be most grateful to hear them. I live in California, USA.

I suspect my body would be willing to travel.

I directed Bill’s attention to the example of Bernd Heinrich and William Hamilton here, and I touched on the difficulty of finding unpeopled wilderness on our crowded planet. I suggested the body farm in Tennessee. All the while, I chuckled at Bill’s developed rationale, which he attached as a Word document. I asked him if I might post it. He told me he wanted to redraft it first. He’s just sent it back to me. He also sent me photos of his cat, Brutus, his duck, Jacqi, his neighbour, Polistes exclamans (a paper wasp) and his back yard (garden, we’d say in Britain) unmown for four years because “I was interested see what the poor, craven, downtrodden grasses of a typical yard would become, if liberated from the obsessive-compulsive human urge to manipulate and control all that which surround them.”  These photos illustrate his text.

Green Departures — Das Lied zu der Erde

William Jordan

Having come to a point much closer to the end of life than the beginning, having survived a close call with my mortality, age having its inevitable way, it seems time to get my affairs in order….. Or more specifically, to make my bed. If you know your bed is waiting, the sheets turned down, climbing in is a formality, maybe even a pleasant one.

When I go, I want my body laid out on the ground, so the insects and other small scavengers can participate in their rightful and overdue feast. Human civilization is based on the deepest, most cardinal of ecological sins–burial–because for the vast majority of terrestrial life you lie where you die, and the entire ecology depends on the unfettered redistribution of nutrients. This means there can be no such thing as “green” burial, because in nature there is no burial at all. The corpse is the groceries of a living system; a corpse represents a health-food supermarket stocking the nutrients, minerals, etc., that we have gathered and assembled in our bodies during the course of living. When we die, nature wants the ingredients back, because they are only on loan, and all living things excepting the human being, are happy to oblige. The custom of burial, however, seals the nutrients off, slowing the redistribution, if not outright arresting it. But, because of the incalculable stench of a decomposing human corpse, particularly that of a right-wing conservative, we simply cannot obey the normal, physiological ways of nature. Civilization –which requires existence in one place–also requires us to stuff our cadavers under its synthetic rug, starving the world that nurtures us through life. The same principles hold true for the turd. A turd is a vital repository of essential vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, oils that represent the expenditure of much time and energy to concentrate–but civilization cannot long endure without the nihilistic practice of burial and sewage disposal–or at least that’s the way its values are currently structured.

I would offer myself back. My god is in nature, although I don’t think of it as a god, just a vast, all-pervasive, incomprehensibly nuanced reality from which I have bubbled up like hot-springs mud and will subside back, only to bubble up again in some other molecular form. So for me, to know I’ll be going back into the air, the soil, the rain, the mist, the snow–back to the ecstasy I feel while walking–these experiences are so comforting that I almost look forward to being laid out on the festive table of a Sierra Nevada meadow, or the large rocks in the Australian Alice, or the sagebrush scrub of the Great Basin. I would like to delay my departure, of course, because the essence of life is procrastination. Those live longest, who procrastinate best. But, like everyone else, I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see how much I can delay things.

Such a disposition would require preparation–some kind of cage or enclosure to keep bears and other large omnivores from scattering bones about. That wouldn’t bother me. My tolerance would be infinite–besides, there’s nothing wrong with a little flinging of the feast. But law enforcement would pitch a fit, and Forensic Files would produce a 2-hour special. It’s a bizarre sign of the times that when a human body is found in some natural place like a field or a forest, people treat it with horror, because most never have, and never will encounter one. If a world of 6.9 billion people were self-sustaining (impossible given the current nature of nature), bones would lie scattered everywhere, like styrofoam; you could not find an uncluttered landscape. But society stuffs its cadavers under the ecological rug, so the land shows no evidence of the human hordes that dominate it. Nevertheless, in my ideal world, all I’d need would be enough time for the soft parts to be carried off in the bodies of the flies and ants, which are the first-line distributors of the invertebrate world. The bones, cartilage, mummified skin, hair–I’m fine with burying those, but directly in the soil, not sealed in some sort of unholy canister.

The challenge becomes finding some remote land, protected, if necessary, by remote people for several summer months while the feast proceeded. At this point I am open to any and all suggestions.

Perhaps the best way to sum up my thesis is to consider the diametrical opposite of a green disposition: The ex coronation of Pope John Paul, preceded by an undertaking to make the Pharaohs weep.

First, they embalmed the Pope’s corpse, rendering him inedible. Then they placed his body inside a hand-crafted black-walnut coffin. Then, they placed that coffin inside a larger coffin made of lead and soldered it shut. Then, they placed the body-inside-the-coffin-inside-the-leaden-box inside a huge stone sarcophagus, and finally, maybe to make sure the Pope didn’t rise up like his Boss, they placed the body-inside-the-coffin-inside-the-leaden-box-inside-the-sarcophagus into a crypt, and there the pope’s remains remain, sealed off from the living earth like an old reactor with a half-life of eternity. I cannot imagine a more horrifying, claustrophobic limbo-hell. Like that of all other creatures, my distribution would cost nothing and give back to nature the nutrients essential to a living world.

Aside from all that, well, I figured it was about time for something to show up. It’s been a wonderful existence; the molecules have treated me well; there is nothing to regret….well…. maybe a little to envy in those dealt an even better hand….

18 thoughts on “Absolute rotter

  1. Charles Cowling

    That’s great. I’ve been chewing over how I could make this happen for myself. It’s great to read I’m not the only one one thinks this way – that a green burial is not really green at all. The focus on decomposition – composting – rather than trophic transfer – being eaten – belies a consistent blind spot about heterotrophism and predation that even some adherents of deep ecology seem to exhibit.

    (Not Gary Snyder though – “If you think of eating and killing plants or animals to eat as an unfortunate quirk in the nature of the universe, then you cut yourself off from connecting with the sacramental energy exchange, evolutionary mutual-sharing aspect of life. And if we talk about evolution of consciousness, we also have to talk about evolution of bodies, which takes place by that sharing of energies, passing it back and forth, which is done by literally eating each other. And that’s what communion is.”)

    I wouldn’t be happy with fencing out birds and large mammals, either.

    All thoroughly illegal here. If/when I get terminally ill, I’m hoping to go for a long backcountry hike…

    Charles Cowling
  2. I never met a raven I didn't like | The Good Funeral Guide

    […] bells? No? It ought to. Bill Jordan? Still not with it? Okay, you give in. You first read about him here, on this blog, in May 2011, when he broached his (some would say eccentric) desire that his remains […]

  3. The Good Funeral Guide – Dissolution

    […] has featured before on this blog. If you missed his extended rationale, read this and […]

  4. The Good Funeral Guide – Bill’s bones and other stories

    […] You may have missed the comment below by Cynthia Beal on Bill Jordan’s piece about how he wants to be buried on the surface where he can be of most use. Read it here. […]

  5. Charles Cowling
    Cynthia Beal

    Bill and I are going to have a go at seeing what we can come up with to accommodate his very natural wishes. We hope to cover all the bases and find some way to achieve his goals without creating any public health and safety issues in excess of those caused by conventional burials, nor caring over-much for what people think. Personally, I’ve got in mind an ornamental wrought-iron grill work to set on top of him as a sort of cage with some way to address the dirt-on-top legality. It would secure his body from large predators and let the insects he likes so well have full access. We’re going to arrange for him to have DNA tests on file in the county of his disposition, as I suggested that a drifting femur or metatarsul might give the local sheriff a headache. I’ll keep you posted!

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling
    Rosie Humphreys

    Although I’d like readers to want a natural burial,(preferably in a designated meadow like mine), it has been pointed out to me that a designated personal muck or compost heap would do the job very well, even by Bill’s standards! After 5 or so years, his bones could be ground up and scattered like the Prehistoric societies once did!

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling
    Rupert Callender

    Shallow burial should satisfy both Bill and Ken, and keep the squeamish from contacting the Daily Mail. Ten inches of soil on top and chicken wire if badgers are within the area.

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling
    Paul Hensby

    Fascinating debate. Societies and civilisations from the earliest times and in all parts of the world have dealt with the dead bodies in very ritualistic, complex and spiritual ways. While none of these rituals, usually to do with the afterlife or reincarnation, were based on any scientific evidence I wonder if the urge to burn or bury our dead was and remains because rotting bodies might be health hazards and are rather fearsomely unpleasant to behold.
    However, done properly as Ken West is suggesting, I think the idea of compostoria should be explored, and William’s justification is a powerful validation.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling
    Melissa Stewart

    The body farm in Tennessee is the obvious place to go. There is a blow by blowfly account of what goes on there in ‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach. It would be perfect for Bill. Perhaps there is a market for people who want to decompose above ground in the UK. I can almost feel the first Native Woodland high fenced meadow coming on. Or maybe a 500 acre wood to allow for an acre per person. Thinking outside the box (how apt is that) even further … What about using MOD land which is already secure? Having decomposing bodies lying around might help with military aversion therapy training?

    Charles Cowling
  10. Charles Cowling
    Ken West

    Really enjoyed Bill’s view. The point that’s missed is that the Pope (and his vain acolytes) can obtain his funeral because it suits norms and the commercial process. Bill, meanwhile, is denied his preferred option because society demonises decomposition, and the law is decades out of date. The fact that Bill’s psychology also renders the entire commercial funeral process as pointlesss is full of humanity. In benefiting nature it automatically throws off the traditional funeral process and could even make a virtue of cheapness!

    I still think composting on the surface, under leaves or such medium, could be the answer. A ‘compostoria’ could be contained, quick and potentially odour free, based of body farm experience.

    Charles Cowling
  11. Charles Cowling

    Shallowest you can bury a human body depends on the regulations of the cemetery or burial ground. As far as I understand it, all the law states is that it has to be ‘hygienic disposal’; but any burial ground owner who inadvertantly allows wild animals to scatter human remains from a too-shallow grave is in for some serious shit, obviously, so it’s probably a matter of caution more than of legislation.

    Charles Cowling
  12. Charles Cowling
    gloria mundi

    Splendid. Not sure I understand the strength of Thomas’s objections – Bill exhibits no intolerance, no demand that others follow suit; he merely expresses, most interestingly, his own preference and why he doesn’t like the available alternatives. And maybe for some people the wonders of science are as strong as the undoubted power of symbols.

    Afterlife or no, I must say I find it strange that a church that believes in the life of the soul seals away the corporeal remains of its spiritual leader in such a detemined fashion. To what end?

    Seems to me there is a spiritual element to Bill’s thought, which Emma sums up in her 3rd. para. (Wish I could find a better word than “spiritual” to sum up what I and others mean who want to use the word free of any connotations of spirits and souls. A sense of deep mystery and wonder, a sense of a meaning that isn’t arrived at only by reason, you know the stuff..)

    As for Jonathan’s witty poem – maybe the the Digital Cuttlefish has a rival!

    OK, there are too many of us to leave corposes scattered about – but since experts (GFGers actually) tell me no-one has by law to be buried six feet under, why not just bury us in a shallow grave – then Bill’s tiny creatures could have a go at his body without anyone being distressed. Emma, what’s the shallowest you can bury people at, please? Could we not simply bury bodies at compostible depths and protect the site until the wee beasties had done the recycling job?

    Charles Cowling
  13. Charles Cowling

    My body thrives in the air and the wind;
    and I don’t know how I could have so sinned
    that I must end up being burned or binned
    like landfill trash that we’ve boxed and tinned.

    Charles Cowling
  14. Charles Cowling
    James Leedam

    Thank you Charles – I’m entirely with Bill on this. Bravo!

    Charles Cowling
  15. Charles Cowling
    Emma Restall Orr

    I love Bill’s words. There is a beautiful open-heartedness in how he expresses his idea of nature’s sanctity and natural order, and his desire to be given back so fully into its interconnected cycles, its very fabric of being.

    It does feel strange to me that someone would want to be so separated from nature in death as to be embalmed and entombed. We don’t know, as Thomas says above, what happens at death to the soul or mind: despite the extent of modern science, we still have no way of proving what consciousness is, let alone if there is or was a transcendent creator. Any conclusions about such things have to be speculation based upon belief, and each one of us must be free to believe as we wish.

    However, we do know what happens to the physicality of our being when we die. It decays. As leaves decay in autumn, it is nature’s way to disentangle the threads of our fleshy being, to deconstruct us, into the magical humming monads of our elemental essence.

    My only query, and I raise it with some regret, is that such a desire is one that, in our overpopulated world, would be hard to satisfy. Would it be harder if everyone wanted it, or would our culture allow for such a means of ‘disposal’? Cremation is so safe, so clean, so finite – except that it uses so much fuel it simply can’t be described as ethically sound. Leaving our bodies to the surface creatures is so natural, so messy, so slow – and the ethical questions perhaps only arise because it is not part of our culture.

    Like the beautifully grumpy old men who tell me that they want ‘no fuss’ when they die, declaring their wish to be ‘put out with the rubbish in a bin bag’, expressing last wishes that can’t be fulfilled is a frustration for all concerned. Burial, natural burial, I think, is the best option that is currently available. No coffin, no lead, no nails, no embalming … and burial at a depth that will not disturb or horrify a culture unused to seeing such decay.

    Having said that, I raise a dram to Bill, and hope his words make folk think.

    Charles Cowling
  16. Charles Cowling

    I more than strongly suspected that you wouldn’t like this, Thomas. It will be interesting to see what diversity of responses this post gets.

    Charles Cowling
  17. Charles Cowling
    Jon Underwood

    Thanks Charles, and thanks Bill Jordan. May your corpse be treated as you wish!

    Charles Cowling
  18. Charles Cowling
    Perpetua's Garden

    Yes, Charles, he expresses his point of view well. And it will resonate well among the many like-minded.

    But he forgets entirely that his is one point of view among many equally valid ones. And if tolerance is called for in any field, then it is in this one where none of us know what the hell is going on!

    For instance, in his characterization of the preparation of the Pope’s body for the other side, he is as prejudiced as the worst. The aspiration to “a half-life of eternity” might seem laughable to him, but to many others it is what makes life itself worth tolerating. (Clever turns of phrase are not the measure of the quality or veracity of a thought.)

    His own aspirations to an infinitely diluted after-life in nature could be seen by those aspiring to a more individual survival as pathetically unambitious, a cop-out.

    Moreover, if he wants us to understand his hopes of after-life metaphorically, then he has to also see that others may have also understood their choices metaphorically, including the Egyptians and the popes. Seen in metaphorical terms, his own vision is nothing more than a reiteration of the age-old desire of humanity to return to the womb of the mother-earth, from where it was born and hopes to be born once more.

    But I suspect this modern version with its intellectual backing of molecular biology has actually been weakened by the latter – getting too specific in these matters weakens the symbolic power, makes it too literal. His scientific background means he cannot envision other possibilities than an infinite dilution and conservation of his energy/matter; but the material aspect is only a part of reality.

    We are all far too literal when it comes to these subtle matters; we forget that symbols are infinitely more powerful than material “realities” – they point to levels of truth that are not expressible in empirical terms.


    Charles Cowling

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