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Life After Death

There Is Life after Death: Microbes

This article is dedicated to a few friends and aquaintences who strongly believe in the afterlife; the romantic notion of living past lives as different people and looking forward to the next life adventure after your physical death. Unfortunately I am not able to share those experiences because I have been trained scientifically to only accept proofs of existence and so I must lead the life of a cynic. So this is my version of the “afterlife.”
In my scientific world there are two groups of organisms that take us to the afterlife. They are detritivores and decomposers. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably but technically detrivitores have a stomach: They ingest and digest dead matter and decomposers don’t. Decomposers like fungi and bacteria break down the chemical bonds that hold the molecules of dead things together and release the main elements of life—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulphur—from their human bonds, freeing them to be used again.
We carry around the labourers of our own decomposition and subsequent resurrection every day. When an animal dies, oxygen stops going in and carbon dioxide stops going out. The acidity level increases and the cells collapse, releasing enzymes that break down surrounding tissue. “The enzymes that built us,” wrote William Bryant Logan in “Dirt,” “now undo us.”
Without fresh oxygen coming in, the population dynamics of our internal bacterial communities change and our resident decomposers increase, and without a live immune system at work, they spread throughout your body. The nasty smells of the dead attract insects that disassemble the bulk of the body mass, and the altered acidity of our remains attracts fungal decomposers. If there are any pathogens on the corpse, microbes in the soil kill them, or they die of exposure or lack of food, which is why graveyards aren’t the hotbeds of disease.
All this can take months. And it’s not just happening from the inside out. Top predators are broken down by top detrivitores. In a Tibetan sky burial, a naked human corpse is transported to the top of the mountain on the back of a relative’s moped, the flesh flayed and left exposed to be eaten by large Carrion birds. The remaining bits are consumed by smaller detrivitores like rats and beetles. Fungi and bacteria break down the molecular leftovers into life’s raw ingredients, and still other types of bacteria help recycle the building blocks of life back into the pool of opportunity. Sad as death is, it’s also about opportunity and the renewal of life.
So it takes a village of detrivitores and decomposers to recycle a corpse. That’s why the designer Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit—basically pyjamas threaded with fungal spores bred to decompose bodies—can’t really fulfill its promise to ensure you a speedier decomposition. The suit costs $1500 as does the Infinity Burial Shroud (there’s an “add to cart” button on Ms. Lee’s website which I think is a much more sensitive choice than “check out”). But fungi are actually pretty bad at decomposing corpses on their own. We bury our dead deep, and fungi are aerobic. They need air. The truth is, not much will happen quickly to a corpse or anything organic if it’s buried six feet under the soil’s surface, because the diversity of composition drops off the deeper you go.
Thousands of years ago, the Muslims and the Hebrews were the first to bury their dead six feet under. They washed the body and wrapped it in a plain white cloth and buried the body deep in the ground almost immediately after death. This was because of their fear of the spread of disease.
If it’s efficient land-based breakdown you are after, it’s probably best to be buried under a pile of wood chips, which have lots of little air pockets to keep aerobic decomposers alive. This may have been the thought of Bruce McArthur, the alleged serial killer in Toronto who was a landscaper by profession.
There is life after death, and it is mainly microbial. Microbes like bacteria bridge the living and non-living spheres of the Earth. Life starts with microbes that use energy and secure food from inorganic sources like atmospheric gases and minerals (this includes plants: The parts of the plant that do the work of photosynthesis, chloroplasts, evolved from ancient bacteria.) Once these nutrients are in the bacterium they become terrestrialized, and available to other earthbound creatures, all the way up the food chain to us. And then, when we die, there are bacteria waiting to release these elements back into the nonliving sphere.
If you are a religious person, you can spiritualize decomposition. God may not be one entity, but trillions of microscopic ones and hence the resurrection of Jesus can be thought of not only in spiritual terms but also in biological terms. The fact is, we all die and return to earth. The issue is whether we actually have a soul and move into another life.
The great thing about science is that it is always changing and going forward. Acts of nature that were attributed to God thousands of years ago are now understood as normal scientific phenomenons. Maybe someday there will be definitive proof of this entity called a soul and how it can move from body to body and although I am a cynic, I always keep my mind open to new revelations. [print_link]