Many of us have forgotten our destined role in the world, our final and most important contribution to the earth: ourselves.
But despite our self-declared superiority, we humans are an integral part of the ecosystem and provide the earth and other living beings nutrients as we pass and eventually disintegrate into the ground, completing a necessary cycle that is imposed on every living species.
At least, that is how it is supposed to happen. Our culture has turned death into a business and what seems an attempt at preservation or the encasing of the body in dignity has lead to an intoxicating use of chemicals that leak by the gallons into the groundwater.
This includes, quite notoriously, the act of embalming.
What began as the preservation of the soul, as practiced by the Ancient Egyptians through drying corpses, has been taken to the extreme, observed in the types of embalming that take place today.
Modern methods of embalming started during the nineteenth century. It was then that Dr. Thomas Holmes created the arterial method of embalming bodies. This method employed the use arsenic fluid that was pumped into the blood vessels after the blood had been drained. It took prominence during the Civil War, as many soldiers died far from their homes, and it preserved the bodies for their return journeys to family.
While arsenic fluid was banned in the early 1900s, (turns out it wasn’t so safe for practitioners to use) today’s solvent cocktails are beyond questionable.
Most modern embalming fluids contain a mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and ethanol – in addition to the occasional dyes or perfume. In the U.S., around 5.3 million gallons of this fluid is buried every year. With a single body receiving nearly three gallon’s worth of injections.
Yet, despite these hazardous efforts, embalming doesn’t prevent decay.
It will keep you “fresh” for a few days, long enough to pose in an open casket (after much make-up and disinfectant has been applied), but you will still disintegrate. Unfortunately, because of the toxic injection you will not return peacefully back to the earth, but will remain in what has become an in-ground landfill. Certainly, no dignity can be found in that.
This isn’t to say that we aren’t all tainted to some extent by our exposure to toxins from our daily lives.
Nor does it take into account the additional damage of non-degradable caskets and metal vaults, or the pollution created by cremation.
But let us respect ourselves, and the environment, enough to part with our conscious lives by giving ourselves back to nature as ourselves, not chemically modified caricatures.
What We Leave Behind, Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay, copyright 2009, Seven Stories Press
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