Do you remember the first time you saw a dead body? I do, and it isn’t a very pleasant memory. I remember approaching a casket to view the body of a man I never actually knew. I was less than five years old and had been dragged along to the funeral of some family friend of my grandparents. I remember seeing this old man’s body, looking stiff and plasticky. I remember hiding behind somebody’s leg, gripping at their black pants. I remember insisting to leave.
And then I refused to go to funerals for a long time. I refused to see mummies at museums. I would wince at opening sequences of CSI and leave the room. I spent one night sleepless after accidentally channel surfing through a documentary on King Tut. Every corpse I encountered made me panicky, restless, and nervous. I even developed this bizarre fear of skeletons that manifested in an avoidance of my high school biology classroom and the model skeleton than resided there (and was generally wearing silly costumes, anyway).
I also ran out of the Body Worlds exhibit at museum. (Embarrassing).
I screamed in a church when I walked into a service I expected to be closed-casket when it was actually open-casket. (Embarrassing, rude, and upsetting to everybody else.)
I lived with this profound fear of corpses for the first 24 years of my life. It impacted my ability to attend burial rites, visit science museums (which I otherwise love), and I didn’t know how I would deal when my grandparents died.† Worse, I didn’t know if I would be able to cope with the death of my own parents – how would I manage with being in charge of my mother or father’s body if I couldn’t walk into an open-casket funeral? (Plus – I’m an only child. I can’t pass this job on to anybody else.)
What finally helped me handle my fear was finding a way to view death from a scientific perspective. I was tired of being afraid and in my 20s I started to engage more in things that scared me, in general. To tackle my fear of public speaking, I signed up to give a 5 minute talk on science at a bar as part of a science communication event. To tackle my corpse-fear, I started engaging slowly with the “Ask a Mortician” YouTube Channel (this felt pretty brave for me, since I would shudder at a picture of a skull). Caitlin Doughty’s videos were made for people just like me and I found them both comforting and informative. As a chemist, I’m familiar with biochemistry (the study of life) but I hadn’t ever considered necrochemistry (the chemical study of death).
As I dug in more and more and found resources through The Order of the Good Death, my fear transformed into intellectual curiosity. I’ve traversed to the opposite end of the spectrum – I am now fascinated by death and I feel prepared to cope with death when it comes into my life. I can’t express how empowering it feels to be prepared to face death, at least as much as any of us can, and to no longer be afraid to talk about it, or be around it. A scientific and chemical lens on death gave me the language to engage with it. While the idea of a loved one decaying had seemed foreign and scary to me, the concept of a microbiome of unique bacteria thriving to break down organic matter was fascinating!
For a recent course on teaching, I was tasked with writing a syllabus for a unique course in my field of study. I decided to use my personal experience to create a class that would be scientifically interesting and might even help some students struggling with similar fears. I wrote a syllabus called, “Equilibrium = Death: The Chemistry of Death, Dying, and Decay.” In this course, my goal was to introduce students to the science of death with a broad range of accessible topics and resources. For example, we would talk about how cremation is actually more environmentally friendly than burial and that in some cases, buried bodies can turn into… mostly soap!
In researching resources to use for my imaginary class, I found dozens of great sources on necrochemistry that are diverse in both content (mortuary science, academic papers) and format (books, articles, videos, podcasts). I realized that this resource list might be helpful beyond my practice syllabus assignment and potential future classes, so I decided to share it here on Sustainable Nano, too. I hope there is something for everybody as we face our fears and dig into death from a scientific viewpoint!
† After the original drafting of this post, I can unfortunately report that death touched my life. I can, however, confirm that I was more prepared to grieve and talk about it than I ever had been before.
Resource list for Equilibrium = Death: The Chemistry of Death, Dying, and Decay
General Death Science & Chemistry:
- American Chemical Society Reactions video: The Chemistry of Death
- Sustainable Nano blog post: Bog Bodies: The Chemistry Behind Natural Embalming by Jaya Borgatta
- Ask A Mortician video: Adiopocere AKA Corpse Wax
- Nile Red video: Making Cadavarine (smell of rotting flesh)
- Live Science article: Eating Brains: Cannibal Tribe Evolved Resistance to Fatal Brain Disease by Rachael Rettner
- Book: Stiff by Mary Roach
- Speaking of Chemistry video & article: Cremation, burial, or composting? Calculating the environmental costs of the afterlife
- TED Talk: What Happens to Our Bodies After We Die? By Farnaz Khatibi Jafari
- Book: Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty
Death & Culture:
- Book: From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
- Ask a Mortician video: Painting with Human Remains
- Scientific American article: Bodies of Art? by Bradley T. Webbs
- Ask a Mortician video: Funeral Fashion
- Ask A Mortician video: Corpse Flowers, Affordable Funerals, & Electroplating the Dead
- American Council on Science and Health article: Chemistry, Politics, and the Death Penalty by Josh Bloom
- Scientific American article: Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanationsby Charles Choi
- Forbes article: The Geology of Graveyards by David Bressan –
- Sawbones podcast episode: Medical Cannibalism
- Ask a Mortician video: Eco Death Takeover
- New York Times article: Green Burials: At the End of Life, Thinking Outside the Coffin by Wendy MacNaughton
- Ask A Mortician video: What Happens to a Body During Embalming?
- Ask A Mortician video: Is Embalming Dangerous?
- Ask A Mortician video: Why Don’t Mausoleums Smell Like Decay?
- Death in the Afternoon podcast episode: Crematory Whoopsies
- Book: The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford
- Ask a Mortician video: Are Those Really My Mother’s Ashes?
- Ask A Mortician video: The Self Mummified Monks
- Ask A Mortician video: Organ Donation for Home Funeral Bodies?
- Ask A Mortician video: Open Eye Wakes and Body Farms
- Ask A Mortician video: Liquifying Bodies
- Scientific American article: Dissolve the Dead? Controvery Swirls Around Liquid Cremation by Devin Powell.
- Ask A Mortician video: Cryonics
Specific Types of Decay (or Preservation):
- Chemical & Engineering News article: Finding a Pathway for Necrosis: Small molecule can block cell death, suggesting potential stroke treatment by Sophie Rovner
- National Geographic article: Honey, I’m Dead by Paul Salopek
- Book:The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
- Ask a Mortician video: Morbid Minute – Killer Green
- Book: Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox and the Killer Bean of Calabar by Peter Macinnis
- Book: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup