Someone gave me an Amazon gift certificate last month, which I used to buy ecologist and science journalist Curt Stager‘s 2014 book Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements That Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe. I’m a few chapters into it, and it’s lovely. Stager has a way of wrapping dry biophysics in a kind of mellifluous poetry.
He also pulls that off while speaking off the cuff, as he did in a conversation with a writer from the World Science Festival. Here he’s talking about what happens when we die.
Say you’re cremated. You’ll start to heat up, and all your atoms will start jiggling, and the first thing to go off is going to be be your body water, and that’s about two-thirds of you. That’ll go into the air, and within a few days it’ll turn into clouds and raindrops and snow, and it’ll drop to the earth or into the oceans and become part of water bodies or be soaked up by plants. People will eventually drink you and make you part of their bodies.
The next things to go are your carbon atoms. They start breaking apart from your hair and tissues, and oxygen molecules in the air will sweep in like little angels, in pairs, and scoop up a little carbon atom and go off into the air up the chimney. Within a couple of weeks you’ll have circled the entire planet. And within two months you’ll be equally spread throughout the hemisphere you were cremated in; within a year, the entire planet. You’ll become air, which is mostly what you are. There’ll be some dust left on the bottom of the crematorium, mostly minerals, and that’ll be scattered somewhere, and be taken up by plants and algae.
Literally, if you are cremated and your survivors hang around for two or three weeks, they can look up and say that some of your nitrogen atoms are helping make the sky blue.
That’s a damn sight more attractive than “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Word images like those take a lot of the anxiety out of the process of passing on.
(Image via Shutterstock)