One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial
Old Arctic Inuit hunters could supposedly sit for days, harpoon poised and ready to strike, just staring at a hole on an otherwise desolate sheet of windswept ice, waiting for a seal to surface and steal a breath of air. Enduring frosty cold and, presumably, mind-numbing boredom, the hungry hunter, clad in his mukluks and furry caribou coat, would peer endlessly at his ice hole and enter an alert yet hypnotic state of blissful and cleansing awareness.
All Zen aside, death was probably never far from this primitive hunter’s mind and, courtesy of my reading material for the past three days, neither was it from mine. After what amounted to 36 hours of waiting for an antelope to come drink at the water hole where I lay hidden in ambush (ostensibly) with a old wooden bow and a couple arrows, it occurred to me that the only thing conceivably more mind-bending than staring at an ice hole in the middle of a frozen plain was spending three days in a dusty, pollen-choked hay bale blind, reading about human decomposition while periodically staring at an empty puddle of muddy water, somewhere in western South Dakota.
Seventy-eight pages into The Principles and Practices of Embalming, and I learn that green is the first color of being dead. Within one to three days after we’ve breathed our last, the process of putrefaction for the unembalmed human body begins. Here are some highlights from the text:
One to three days . . . “Greenish discoloration of the abdominal wall. Odor of putrefaction is noticeable. The eyeballs become soft.”
Three to five days . . . Green patches begin to appear on the genitals, back of the neck, chest, and lower extremities. “A bloody, frothy purge may pour from the mouth.”
Eight to ten days . . . “The green discoloration is general over the entire body.” The belly of the deceased begins to bloat and distend.
Fourteen to twenty days . . . The corpse becomes blistered and swollen, even the extremities. Hair and nails are “loose and easily detached.”
One to six months . . . Accumulated gases cause the body cavity to “burst.” Cranial bones reach a point of decay that allows the brain to escape. Any identifiable features of the body are lost.
A real page-turner, I know. In truth, The Principles and Practices of Embalming is about as engaging as a grocery list. It’s a classic textbook for mortuary students. Mine is a vintage, second-edition copy from 1959. Make it this far into the book and you learn that a cadaver immersed in water will float anywhere from six to ten days. A corpse with skin showing “dusky red patches” suggests a person frozen to death. You also learn that prior to the Civil War, most of Christian America saw the ancient practice of embalming a human body as sacrilege or, as Mark Harris described it in his book Grave Matters, “a kind of desecration of the human temple of God that was condemned in the New Testament.” This attitude quickly changed when the remains of thousands of dead Union soldiers began arriving at Northern train stations, packed and putrefying in sweltering summer railcars. Embalming the dead has more or less been standard practice in America ever since, unless you happen to be Muslim or an Orthodox Jew.
Originally, I’d hoped to observe an embalming this week, but that was proving more difficult than I’d expected.
“Why would you want to do that if you’re planning a green burial?” a friend of mine asked.
I really had to think about that for a second. “I don’t know. Maybe to see what I’m going to be missing?”
Two funeral homes back in Michigan never returned my call, and a secretary at Wayne State University’s mortuary school in Ann Arbor (after asking me a series of questions I felt were designed to determine if I was some deviate whack-a-do) informed me that, with fall classes just starting, it might be some time before someone got back to me. So I decided to go hunting.
Some people don’t believe that hunters really love -wilderness and wildlife. How can anyone claim to love something passionately only to kill the source of that inspiration? I’ve asked myself this question more than once in my life and my first reaction is always one of knee-jerk offense. To hint that hunting is simply about killing is to me as ignorant and wrongheaded as believing a person is somehow closer to God simply by going through the motions of taking a piece of bread and sip of wine every Sunday. For me, hunting feeds my body and soul. It’s both a means and a metaphor for living. The immersion is total when playing my blood role as predator. I literally shake sometimes when I think about it — the sweating and bleeding and belly-crawling my way over a million miles of thorny tangles like a pilgrim climbing to a place of enlightenment at the top summit Mount Kailash. Those who love wilderness and wildlife with every corpuscle of their savage being will understand when I say how — when a hunt is done right, the kill coming as a sacred codifying end — it’s like coming as close as mortally possible to touching a sort of Eden.
John James Audubon. Theodore Roosevelt. Ernest Thompson Seton. Aldo Leopold. Edward Abbey. Throughout history, when talking about the best known, most outspoken advocates and protectors of wilderness and wildlife, it’s a plain fact that the greatest were hunters.
But I’m not here to change anyone’s mind about hunting. Hunting is simply the best way I know to connect with the natural rhythms of the earth, life and death and everything of real consequence in between.
For example, I used to live on a farm where almost all the animals we raised eventually ended up on the table. I don’t expect that people who prefer their meat wrapped in cellophane would ever understand how anyone could essentially eat their pets, but there it is. Animals were born. They lived for a while. Then they died. Death might come in an instant with a bullet in the brainpan at butchering time, or it might come painfully, mysteriously, over the course of many months as it did with my father who started falling down, forgetting where he put things and generally acting more than a little bizarre.
I’m not comparing the death of my father to that of a chicken losing its head to make us a stew, but I am saying that this life of living close to the bone — close to the land where people weren’t afraid to get a little blood, pus and shit on their hands — helped give me a stomach for the hard and honest realities of living. Seeing death close up made me humble and deeply appreciative of the gift of life. It also made me realize that where the end of life is concerned, many times the animals had it a lot easier, maybe even better, than we did.
Before I spotted the antelope, the only thing moving on or over the prairie was a Swainson’s hawk. From my hay bale I could see all the way to the piney hills of eastern Montana and Custer National Forest, a good ten miles away. I watched the hawk soar and periodically flap low over the golden plain until I lost sight of him in the mirage between here and there.
There was no telling how long the buck had been lying there. I looked up from my book and there he was — a small one, facing the other way. I saw the curve of his ears and the tops of his little ebony-colored horns where a moment before there’d been nothing but sage bushes and golden grass in the bright, afternoon sun. I took note of the wind and studied him for a few minutes before deciding to quit sitting around and try to make some luck happen. It took another hour of careful crawling — inching over rocks and prickly pear thorns — to get within a stone’s throw.
With a wooden bow and arrows my range is not that much greater than what a mountain lion needs to rush its prey and pounce. I was so close, I should have been able to catch his scent on the wind. I know I tried. I nocked an arrow on the string, gathered my legs under me and tried to calm my drumming heart long enough to shoot. Suddenly, the buck leaped to his feet, and when he did the arrow was gone. One minute the animal was alive and untouchable; the next, he was tumbling dead in a pile of bones, blood, organs, fur and muscle.
Right before I’d focused on the crease behind the animal’s front shoulder, drew, anchored and saw the arrow away, I’d caught a lovely glint of light in the buck’s obsidian eye. It was what poet D.H. Lawrence called the “quickness.”
The quick is God-flame, in everything. And the dead is dead.
Strange to think of poetry when butchering, but this is what I do.
The bones of the antelope I didn’t keep to later render into stock, I collected and returned to the sight of the kill. Burying the unused parts of a wild animal I’ve killed has never occurred to me. Tossing them in the garbage has always struck me as a dishonor, if not a downright sin.
I carried the antelope’s remains back to the open prairie —
set a femur over here, a scapula over there — and was careful to move the guts around until the scene looked exactly like what a pack of coyotes might leave behind for the buzzards. I always thought this little ritual was my own private creation. Then I read about an ancient funerary practice in Tibet called a “sky burial” in which the corpse of the deceased is placed on a mountaintop to be devoured by vultures. The vultures supposedly carry the spirit to heaven. Even the bones of the deceased are smashed and broken into little bite-sized bits. In the end, nothing is left but a bloody smear on the rocks.
What does all this have to do with putrefaction? Like death, I suppose, one day rot will happen to the best of us. The only difference is that a body left to decompose in a coffin eventually turns into fetid, putrefied slop. No coffin, no matter how expensive, can preserve a body indefinitely. Industry terms like “protected,” “gasketed” and “sealed” are often used to make the purchaser believe that adding these extras will keep a body preserved for a longer period of time. They won’t.
What a coffin does do, however, is prevent the deceased from giving anything good of themselves back to the planet that sustains us — all of us — even those who die with praying hands they believe are wholly clean of dirt and blood.
Excerpted from Butz’s new book, Going Out Green: One Man’s Adventure Planning His Own Natural Burial (Spirituality & Health Books).
Bob Butz is an award-winning book author, essayist, and a regular radio commentator on eco-political topics for public radio. A past contributing editor to Sports Afield magazine, his byline has appeared in such magazines and periodicals as the New York Times, GQ, Land Rover Journal, National Wildlife, Outdoor Life, Men’s Journal, and Field & Stream. Butz’s book Beast of Never, Cat of God: The Search for the Eastern Puma (Lyons Press) was chosen by the Michigan Library Association as a Notable Book for 2006. A collection of essays, An Uncrowded Place, was released by Huron River Press in November 2008.