One of the most ancient traits distinguishing humans from other animals is that we bury our dead. We’ve done this for a long time, perhaps more than a hundred thousand years. We can never know exactly why our ancestors choose to honor their dead in this particular manner because they didn’t write anything down. Maybe it was just to prevent scavengers from eating the body. Perhaps, but Homo sapiens are the first organisms to do this, though some argue the Neanderthals did it as well. Surely our close relatives the chimps and the bonobos are emotionally attached to their kin, yet despite tool use they don’t bury their dead.
The lack of information never stops an academic from publishing. One might argue that the less we know about something, the more there is published. Most explanations connect the practice of burying the dead with supernatural religion.
To modern humans, especially westerners, the practice seems almost natural, though it is anything but. Of course many people are also cremated and in some cultures sky burials allow the deceased to return directly to the food chain via vultures. With the exception of this last, most burial practices attempt to remove the body from the nutrient cycles that keep life going. This is especially true now when the wooden casket is placed inside of a cement burial vault. The burial vault protects the casket from the weight of the earth.
Of course our triumph is only temporary as eventually the fungus and bacteria that exist on our body will consume it even in that cement vault. Moreover, the vast majority of nutrients that were once you pass out of you during your life. We are a constantly shifting sum of our parts at any given time; nutrients come in, wastes go out, but “you” are somehow constant. In death, though, that very constant has left. It is a shame that the most recent body is not allowed to peacefully return to the nutrient cycles as all of our other wastes have during our life.
The boss and I were discussing these matters recently because of the passing of someone close to us. One of the boarders wanted to know what happened to the body and so we started talking about the options. For the most part you can be cremated or buried. The boss mentioned the fact that I’ve always wanted to be incorporated into the garden after a good composting.
I have always said that, but I realized how silly it was. I’d rather be sunk a few feet underground and have a nut tree planted on top of me. Nut trees take a long time to mature. Perhaps you’ll start getting nuts in a decade from a black walnut or one of the new chestnut hybrids if you plant it today, but it will be more than that before you have a really good crop. Your children will get a bumper crop and your grandchildren might as well.
For this reason a black walnut or hybrid chestnut seems like the perfect plant to take up my nutrients after I die. Instead of locking them up in a vault or putting them into the air, I’d love to see them used directly by a tree to make delicious nuts for my grandkids. Planting a not tree in honor of someone strikes me as a similar gesture, and I think I’m going to have to find a spot this spring.