I’m in the odd position of being someone who loves detritivores, that is, things that eat the dead. Believe me, it’s not an easy sell at a dinner party. Usually when I reveal my interest, people recoil. Often when I shake someone’s hand and I mention we are sharing mites that eat dead skin cells, I sense my enthusiasm isn’t mutual.
I say I love detritivores, but I am especially fond of decomposers. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but technically, detritivores 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 sulfur — from their corporal bonds, freeing them to be used again.
That’s why I always start thinking about decomposers around Easter. Christ’s body was said to have been untouched by decay when it was resurrected; but for the rest of us, the resurrection part of the life cycle is performed by decomposers.
We carry around the laborers 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 tissues. “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 the body. They consume the proteins in our cells and produce byproducts like methane and hydrogen sulfide gas that bloat and rupture the 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 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 detritivores. In a Tibetan sky burial, a naked human corpse is transported to the top of a 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 detritivores 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.
So it takes a village of detritivores and decomposers to recycle a corpse. That’s why the designer Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Suit — basically pajamas threaded with fungal spores bred to decompose bodies — can’t really fulfill its promise to ensure you a speedier decomposition. The suit costs $1,500, 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 decomposers drops off the deeper you go.
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.
There is life after death, and it is mainly microbial. Microbes like bacteria bridge the living and nonliving 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 those nutrients are in the bacterium, they become terrestrialized, and available to other earthbound critters, all the way up the food chain to us. And then, when we die, there are bacteria waiting to release those elements back into the nonliving sphere.
Some of my friends in the mushroom world take this to its metaphysical conclusion. But it’s useful to remember that John Allegro, a Dead Sea Scroll scholar, pretty much tanked his career in 1970 by arguing that Christianity was originally a mushroom cult and Jesus was a beard for the Amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom with the red cap and white dots.
Though I admit, I myself am tempted to spiritualize decomposition. It kind of make sense that God wouldn’t be one great huge entity, but actually billions and billions of microscopic ones. But I won’t go that far at the Easter festivities this year. The truth is, detritivores and decomposers are physical phenomena, mortal organisms like you and me. They may resurrect the essential ingredients of life, but they aren’t a miracle.
They just feel like one.
Retrograde Message from the great Norman G. (who raised goats in Petaluma, then became a chef).