“God made death so we’d know when to stop.”
“First, it’s not a matter of if your body will produce greenhouse gases, but when and over what length of time. At one extreme, burning will release all of the greenhouse gasses immediately. At the other extreme, putting your body in a coal-forming wetland might delay the release by many millions of years. Since the problem is anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the delayed release option would be the best option for addressing your concerns, since presumably anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions won’t be a problem a few million, or even a few thousand years from now. That suggests that your best option would be to tie weights to your body and sink it deep in a cold bog (it would be best to first open up your abdominal and thoracic cavities, and also open your stomach, intestines and heart, so that there are no gas-trapping cavities that could potentially make you float).”
I miss my chats with my friend Joe Skulan. We used to talk a lot more about all manner of things twenty five years ago, before we both started families and moved away from Madison. One day back then, Joe asked me to help him prepare the fossil skeleton of a prehistoric saber-toothed cat that he wanted to mount and display at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum. I had exactly zero paleontological knowledge or experience, but I agreed to give it a try because I liked hanging around Joe, who was and is endlessly interesting, and because I had enjoyed the introductory geology class I took in college. Joe was a patient and forgiving teacher, and it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the painstaking but exciting hands-on work and the dusty, specimen-filled museum.
The following spring, in 1988, I noticed on my walks to the museum that the grass never turned green. That summer Yellowstone National Park burned up, the Amazon rain forest was ablaze, and a little-known NASA scientist by the name of James Hansen told a Senate panel that the greenhouse effect was “changing our climate now.” The decade had already seen the four hottest years on record. I stayed on as a museum volunteer for a couple of years and got to help dig up, prepare and display the fossilized remains of several other fascinating creatures. I also got to hang out with lots of other bearded and braided folk who enjoyed drinking beer and telling stories almost as much as finding and working on old bones. I remember a conversation or two about global warming, but, like Congress, none of us did much of anything about it.
These days Joe and I don’t often see one another, but we do exchange the occasional email or Facebook message. Now, as back in the ’80s, our exchanges can be a bit lopsided. That’s not because Joe is not a good listener – he is – but because he’s a polymath and generous with his knowledge. I ask lots of questions, Joe answers at length. He has degrees in biology, geology, paleontology and geochemistry and a better-than-working understanding of several other fields, including literature, art and religion. Joe also happens to be one of the most humble and hilarious guys I know. I’ve learned a lot from him, little of it having to do with paleontology.
When I decided to write about the “coolest” or most climate-friendly ways to deal with one’s mortal remains (I’ll try to avoid the term “dispose of”), I decided to contact Joe, who is back at the UW again – this time as a curator and researcher – to see if he could recommend an expert or two who could answer some technical questions for me. I knew Joe would be able to shine some light on the subject himself. What I did not know was that he would be able to answer almost all of my questions.
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