We were out of town once when a cow died at home. We got a call from our farm-sitter, Michael. We were due home soon so we told him not to bother with the unpleasant and challenging business of moving a dead 1,500-pound animal. On the morning after we got home three days later I took the tractor out to the pasture where the cow’s body lay in the summer heat.
All our cows are either black or red. As I went out after the carcass that day, though, I could see from 100 yards away what looked like the corpse of a white cow in the grass. As I came up to her I realized that the whole body of a black cow was encased in a wriggling white layer of fly larvae. Maggots were devouring her from the outside in.
And the smell simultaneously told me her gut microbes were at work devouring her from the inside out.
Our living bodies are maintained in a wondrous state of equilibrium with both the external – and the internal – environments. Our vitality protects us from a natural process of annihilation that begins the instant life leaves our bodies. We live both surrounded by and permeated by creatures just waiting to consume us. Alive, we coexist. The moment we die, all that changes.
As soon as the cow had stopped breathing and the cells within her body were deprived of oxygen, her immune system shut down and the bacteria in her body began a spectacular boom of consumption and reproduction. All the nutrients and energy stored by the big animal were suddenly available to the microbes and they went to work.
Busy microbes are gassy microbes. As they digest their new, enormous meal, the microbes excrete sickly-smelling gasses with poetic names like “putrescine” and “cadaverine.” To buzzards, coyotes and opossums, those odors signify a meal. To flies, those volatile chemicals smell like wealth.
During our summer the cows are besieged by flies. Horn flies, deer flies and horse flies dine on the blood of living cattle and lay their eggs in manure, water or wet soil. But flesh flies and blowflies show up in response to the odors of decomposition. They feast on the decaying flesh of corpses or infected wounds. They can lay their eggs in dung or rotting fruit, but a dead body is among the best places for baby flesh flies and blowflies to hatch and grow up.
Soon after the bacteria begin their work on the cow’s insides the spreading odors attract the flies. Huge numbers of flies dine on the carcass and lay their eggs. Within a few days the body of an adult cow can appear to be a writhing carpet of baby flies – maggots.
A week later, during a hot summer, nearly all the body’s soft tissues are gone, either consumed by scavengers, flown away on the new wings of young flies, or percolated into the soil with the microbes.
On a practical level we’re grateful for the efficiency of this transformation. Anything that dies on the farm is quickly obliterated by nature. We don’t have to worry much about corpses hanging around.
The same transubstantiation would, of course, quickly take our own bodies if they were left to nature.
Human beings work very hard to come up with alternative visualizations. We go to great lengths to obliterate all evidence of our imminent decomposition. We incinerate, embalm or bury our dead, and sometimes all three. We prop our loved ones up on elaborate cushions inside airtight boxes, then display them, covered in makeup, to their bereaved friends and families.
We are repulsed – horrified – by decomposition.
Our most popular movie monsters of the early 21st century, zombies, are typically depicted as partially decomposed humans. They stagger around looking for healthy human beings to zombify, thereby reducing them to bloodthirsty pseudo-corpses devoid of individuality. It occurs to me that they embody two of our most basic horrors: decomposition and a lack of individual will.
Animals, so far as I can tell, are much less concerned about those things. At various times all the animals on our farm are witnesses to the deaths of their friends and family members. Sheep graze placidly around the body of their sister killed by coyotes a few hours before. Chickens will roost and fall asleep next to a dead pal. I’m grossed out by a decaying cow, but her cow family doesn’t seem to have much of any reaction to the sight or the smell.
This is not to say that any of these social species is not capable of its own kind of love. It warms the heart to watch the cow herd gather around a new calf, licking its flanks and smelling its little nose. I could be wrong, but it appears to me that they even grieve their friends when they are gone. At least there’s a period of adjustment as the social order is shuffled. Everybody’s a little out of sorts for a while.
When I’ve taken a dog’s body out to bury it, the other dogs don’t seem to feel any aversion to the body. If anything, they just seem curious. They also seem a little sad in the days following the death, missing their friend I suppose. Or maybe I’m projecting my own emotions on them. I’m just not sure. I’m pretty confident, though, that they don’t confuse the dead body with their departed friend. So far as I can tell, the animals observe a clean boundary between the living and the dead. The living may be friends, loved ones, enemies. The dead are dead.
That is to say that from non-human perspectives it seems there’s nothing special about a body, once it’s a dead body.
But my ego wants my body to live forever.
I put it that way because I’ve been known to claim, emphatically, that I don’t want to live forever. Yet I catch myself, all the time, reading the death news and comparing my own age and health to the recently deceased. I privately keep score. With each passing day, I triumph over more of my contemporaries and I secretly celebrate my survival. Sometimes I obsess over trivial aches and pains that might portend sickness or death. I indulge a hundred little personal myths about how my exercise regimen or my particular diet or my excellent attitude will protect me.
Consciously, I don’t want to live forever. I want to move on and let others take my place. Subconsciously I keep trying to re-figure the mortal arithmetic.
That’s my ego at work, I figure.
“Ego” provides a relatively new name for a timeless concept. English-speakers didn’t use the word until James Strachey started translating Sigmund Freud’s work in the 1920s. Freud’s own word in the original German was “Das Ich,” or literally, “The I.” In English we use the word “ego” to generally describe the aspects of our nature that place us, as individuals, separate from and more significant than others. When we are being egoistic, we have our attention focused on the parts of ourselves that are distinct and, in a word, special.
That’s not quite the same thing we usually mean when we say “egotistical.” Sometimes the ego is confused with high self-esteem, or a favorable impression of oneself. But our fascination with our own inferiority can be just as self-centered as our feelings of superiority. Some of us perceive our most “special” qualities as our virtues. Others obsess about our own bad qualities.
In either case, the part of us that is fascinated with our distinct selves would be called the ego.
And so the ego doesn’t want its object of fascination, the special self, to die. Most of us are afraid, to one degree or another, that all our specialness might just disappear.
My ego isn’t satisfied with any abstract notions of “me.” It’s not ready to settle for some sort of disembodied “legacy” that carries on after my body is dead. And it’s skeptical of spiritual concepts of a permanent “soul” or its reincarnation in new, future physical bodies. My ego wants to keep me just as I am. My ego wants me AND my body to live forever.
Consciously, I’m aware that this thing defined as “me” living on this planet in this time is a temporary, flimsy, transient physical phenomenon, with nothing special to distinguish it from the other countless biological “individuals” spread across the world and time. There’s a wonderful dichotomy in our narrative of existence. Each of us, thanks to our infinite connections to the rest of the universe, emerges unique in the world. Every individual human being – not to mention every living thing – is an unduplicated original. There are billions of variables in the processes that created us, most of which we don’t yet understand. It seems that literally everything has an effect on who we are. All the circumstances of our biological conceptions; the genetics of every previous generation; the time, place, and weather attending our births; the life experiences of our grandparents; possibly even the positions of the stars and planets have biological influences on who we become.
We are unique, but we’re not separate. You are one of a kind, but you’re not, literally, “one.” The boundaries we may like to perceive between us and the rest of the world are permeable and unstable.
I try to imagine my own body dead, swollen, riddled by maggots, seeping into the soil and dispersed on the wind in the tiny guts of blowflies. It’s an interesting exercise and makes me feel queasy.
It also feels fair, and right. Across all the decades of my life on this planet I’ve lived at others’ expense. Every day, with every breath, I’ve been supported by the sacrifices of other creatures who might have filled the same space or eaten the same food, not to mention those I’ve personally consumed.
To think that my own body, built from the living system around me, shouldn’t eventually be made available to the system – percolated in the soil, gorged by buzzards, spread across the prairie wherever the flesh flies go – is unnatural and unfair. One might even say, immoral.