I never met a raven I didn’t like

Charles 8 Comments

Dr. Berndt Heinrich, 72, emeritus biology professor at the University of Vermont, spends much of his time in a cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water, studying animals. His latest book, “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death”, is about how animals die and how they recycle each other:

It’s not so much about death as life. The carcass provides a huge amount of concentrated food for the animals who are recyclers.

I first started thinking about it when a former student, Bill, wrote saying he was terminally ill and what would I think about his having a “sky burial” on my property in Maine? He wanted to leave his body to the ravens. Bill did not want to be cremated or buried in a sealed box. He wanted to be recycled and have his body provide food for other creatures.

Does that name Bill ring any distant 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 ‘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.Do go back and read it; it’s one of the best things we have ever published.

Dr Heinrich addresses the bad reputation enjoyed by scavenger species, vultures and ravens particularly. He says ‘It’s because of their association with death — they are blamed for it. Ravens get blamed a lot for killing a lot of things when, in fact, they mostly eat the dead and the nearly dead. It’s an illogical association that comes from a lack of understanding of what these animals do. Consider what would happen in the ocean if nothing ate the dead fish. Eventually, the ocean would be up to the top with dead fish. If there were no recyclers, nature would stop.’ He adds: ‘Ravens are very appealing. I’ve never met a raven I didn’t like.’

There’s an insight here into the public perception of undertakers. 

Interesting isn’t it that of all species, humans go out of their way to avoid being recycled in this way? 

Read more about Dr Heinrich in the New York Times here


  1. Charles

    Sky burials are an interesting concept; not one I would necessarily choose for myself, but interesting nevertheless. The rest of nature recycles the dead to provide sustenance for the still living and even in some cultures sky burials are an old tradition. According to science, sky burials make sense.To play the devil’s advocate for a moment, why should humans not participate in the process practiced by nature? But, for most of today’s society it is still a morbid process that most people cannot fathom participating in.

  2. Charles

    Agree, Sarah. They think it’s all about negatives — rot, dissolution, decay. They don’t think of the positives — the giving back, the enduring. No one talks of vibrant decomposition. Come to think of it, decomposition is the wrong word!

  3. Charles

    In Tibetan Buddhism with which ‘sky burial’ is most commonly assosiated, it is the final act of ‘dana’, loosley translated as charity or kindness/generosity and generates merit helping to assure a good ‘rebirth’.

  4. Charles

    It has always struck me as significant that you hardly see any wild animal corpses, simply because Nature takes care of them.

    Nature has no crematorium or burial ground, needs no registrar but registers her own dead, mourns their death, celebrates their life and passes it on to her living, recycling their remains with no trace, no shortage of space, no carbon footprint, no loss.

    Come to think of it, I’d quite like to be part of Nature – she sounds nice.

  5. Charles

    Wise words from Jonathan today (as so often.) Except that you – we – are part of nature. Just doesn’t always feel like it. The whole natural/unnatural conceptual framework seems to me deeply flawed.If we could see ourselves as truly IN and of nature, then a lot of things would surely be better – including end-of-life activities.

  6. Charles

    I’ve also never met a raven I didn’t like – not that I’ve studied them. But they are often to be found guarding mountain slopes and peaks, thoughtfully watching us fools grinding our way up in oddly-coloured gear until they can stand it no longer, and fly off with one deep croak.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>