This chapter made me really glad that I chose to read a book whose author has a youtube channel. The topic of this story is one that she’s actually talked about before. Doughty talks briefly about body farms, before getting into Katrina Spade’s work with West Carolina University and the Urban Death Project.
Now, briefly, a description of a so-called “body farm” for those that are unfamiliar with the term. A body farm is an informal term for a facility, usually associated with a university, where donated bodies go to decompose under various conditions so that they can be studied. This is normally so that forensic experts can get a better idea of how bodies decompose, and then they can more accurately estimate time of death for the bodies of victims of violent crime. There are a few of these in the United States, and it’s an option for those who wish to donate their bodies to science after their death. There is some space devoted to these facilities and how they’re run, but most of it is devoted to Spade’s work.
To explain the philosophical ideas behind the Urban Death Project, Doughty uses a dead whale as a metaphor. Bear with me, this made a lot of sense. A whale dies, and its body eventually sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it becomes its own sort of ecosystem. That’s what nature intends. After an organism dies, its body returns to the earth and can help support new life. That’s what the Urban Death Project does. People who volunteer for the project have their bodies put into conditions that would help them decompose faster, and they eventually completely transform into rich, nutrient-filled soil. The project hasn’t perfected the process quite yet, but as more volunteers come in, the project has more opportunities to make the adjustments that they need.
Now, what do I think of this? I really don’t know. It’s so new and strange to me that I still don’t have my thoughts straight on exactly what I think about all of this. There are opponents to the project, one of whom Doughty even mentioned by name. I have my doubts about his credentials, but I’ll let the experts have the opinions.
But overall, the idea of composting bodies is a bit like cremation, in a way. Cremation reduces a body to ash and powdered bone. Composting reduces a body to humus. I don’t know how I feel, and Doughty doesn’t seem to have her head completely wrapped around it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That’s the lesson that I’ve overall gotten from From Here to Eternity: Even when something is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, one still needs to give it its fair consideration. Death is something so personal and so universal at the same time. It’s scary to think about it, scary to know that one day, each and every one of us is going to die. And so far, this book has really shown different ways that cultures handle that fact.