Immortality as Defined by Jae Rhim Lee
By fostering the decomposition of her future corpse, Jae Rhim Lee makes certain she will make a beneficial material contribution to ‘earth’ (soil) that supports life on ‘Earth’ (planet). The prodigious transformation of inert substances into living matter occurs within the narrow zone where the bottom layer of sky and the top layer of our planet intersect. It is precisely the zone where burial is located.
These contrasting districts opeate on complementary but opposing power sources. The energy that drives the above ground food web issues from the sun, while the energy that propels the soil food web emits from decaying organic matter. Thus photosynthesis and detritus are functionally related. When these energy sources are synchronized, the bacteria and fungi underground conduct the heavy work of nourishing above ground populations of all kinds. This miraculous assemblage ultimately accounts for every living entity that ever existed on our special planet.
As much as soil provides a habitat for elemental forms of life, it also serves as the sepulcher for life’s partner, death. Solemn ceremonies have evolved the world over to lay the corpses of loved ones ‘to rest’ within the dark, moist zone of dirt. In actuality, the deceased’s tranquility is short-lived. Its presence stimulates a frenzy of dismantling actions that persists until the last organic molecule is wreaked out of the corpse, which ultimately produces soil. Early attempts by Mediterranean civilizations to preserve the body against decomposition through salting, drying, and pickling, slowed but never thwarted decomposition. The same processes that preserved corpses then preserve foods now.
These benign methods persisted into the 19th century when Thomas Holmes, a Civil War mortician, invented embalming to prevent dead Union officers from decaying on the way home from the war zone for burial. Embalming fluids have evolved into a brew of nine unsavory chemicals that are detrimental to soil organisms. As Bryant Logan notes, “A dead body is not toxic, even when it is decaying. But formaldehyde is!“
Lee is introducing an alternative management of human corpses that does not merely avoid introducing these toxic substances, and it is more than merely benign. Her procedures actually enhance soil's capacity to support new life, granting her molecules ecological immortality.