Green Burial at No Unsacred Place

Over at No Unsacred Place, I talk about green burial as a “best last gift”, endangered vultures in Asia, and how you can build houses out of cemeteries. From the post:

“I am decidedly agnostic when it comes to the idea of an afterlife of any sort. If there is one, great! The adventure continues. If there isn’t, though, then I would spend my last moment of awareness horrified if I felt I hadn’t made the most of this life. This includes the responsible disposition of my remains once I’m gone. I have no guarantee that there’s any life other than this one, but I know for sure that what I do in this moment can have reverberations in this world well beyond my own departure. I am not motivated by fear of a horrible punishment after I die. I am motivated by the care of the beings I share this life with right now. And I feel that the best last act I can do for this world is to responsibly return the resources I used to build my body back to their source once I’m done walking around in the flesh.”

Read more here.

Animals, Activism, and Dialectics

Having worked with hides, bones, and other animal parts in my art and spirituality for 15+ years, I’ve had my fair share of people questioning me about what I do (or being even more high-volume in their responses and reactions). I understand it can be a pretty emotional subject for a lot of people; death is a difficult thing for a lot of people in this culture, and unnecessary death even moreso. But there’s this thing that the occasional dissenter does that drives me a bit batty. Somehow in their mind “you make things out of animal parts” turns into “you can’t possibly like animals because you eat/wear/make things out of dead ones!” It’s an accusation tossed out at other people, like hunters, taxidermists, omnivores, and so forth. And it’s completely based in a logical fallacy, with such varied names as “excluded middle”, “either/or fallacy”, “false dilemma”, and so forth. (You can find out more about this little cognitive blip here.)

First, such a statement narrows the potential options down to two, based in the idea that “you’re either with me or against me in this argument”. There’s no gray area between “If you love animals you’ll do everything I do” and “If you don’t agree with me it means you don’t love animals”. Furthermore, it completely invalidates my actual feelings on the matter. I do love animals. I’ve had many pets through the years that I cared for dearly and took good care of. I admire the beauty and diversity of other beings, and I appreciate the lives of the animals whose remains I now work with in my art and spirituality. I have always put aside some of the money from my art and book sales to donate to nonprofits that support wildlife and their habitats, not because I want to keep having hides and bones to work with, but because I want there to keep being a great diversity of life independent of any subjective (and especially material) value humans may place on it. I know my own heart and why it carries what it does.

Speaking of my heart, let’s look a little more at that idea that I don’t care as much as they do about animals (or at all). First of all, there’s not an empirical tool for measuring “caring”, or “love”, or “attachment”. And second, the idea that omnivores, taxidermists and the like “don’t care about animals” is a complete falsehood (and something I touched on earlier this year.) I can give you plenty of examples of people who eat, wear, and even kill animals who also love animals, which invalidates that “you don’t REALLY love animals” argument. I grew up in a small town with a significant farming community. I didn’t grow up on a farm myself, but I went to school with a lot of kids who did. I grew up around people who named baby calves and pigs, took good care of them, spoiled them rotten, and then took them to the FFA show or the county fair or the livestock auction and sold them to someone who would slaughter the animals for meat. Or their family would do the killing themselves, and they’d eat the meat of the same animal they cared for all year. This wasn’t seen as a contradiction. It was just the way livestock farming is; you care for animals, and some of them you kill later so your family (or another family) has food to eat. Sure, some of those farm kids grew up to be vegetarian because they didn’t agree with what they were raised with. But others kept that life/death balance, and they’re not more or less right than the ones who changed their minds.

It’s the same with hunters. Some of the most passionate nature-lovers I know are hunters. It’s not, as some animal rights people like to say, “go out and admire nature’s beauty and then kill it”. Hunters in cultures around the world, indigenous and otherwise, honor the very same animals they kill. So do many farmers, and other people involved in killing animals for human consumption, food and otherwise. In fact, it’s a sentiment that I think needs to be more widespread in the more corporate, overgrown areas of agriculture where the animals are just seen as a commodity. Seeing them as beings deserving care and respect does not mean that they are not also a source of sustenance. I do feel that as a culture we could honor the animals we depend on much more than we do, and that this could lead to changes in how we raise and kill them, and treat their remains afterward. But this requires the ability to accept both the life and the death of the animal and our involvement in both.

And that’s where we run into what I see as a big deficiency in this culture–a lot of people have trouble with dialectics. They don’t seem capable or willing to hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in their mind at the same time; it has to be either/or for them. We really aren’t prepared for the gray areas. Look at our two-party-dominated political system, and look at how they tear into each other during campaign season. Look at how often religious beliefs are framed in us vs. them terms. Same thing with sex and gender, race, and other group affiliations. We have the chorus of “right vs. wrong” drilled into our heads from an early age, and no one really prepares us for the possibility that things may be more complicated than that. I think sometimes when there comes a depiction of gray areas, there are those who shun them, and those who latch onto them; look at the strong positive response to Miyazaki’s film, Princess Mononoke/Mononoke Hime. One of the reasons it’s so beloved by its fans is because it’s not a simple good buy/bad guy picture; here’s a wonderful short comic that illustrates something profound that Miyazaki said about good vs. evil. I think we need more of that here. We need more challenges to this black and white way of viewing a complicated, sometimes messy world.

How do we learn to be more comfortable with dialectics? By being willing to face the uncomfortable reality that there will always be someone who disagrees with us vehemently. By accepting that people will have different solutions to complicated problems, and that our way is not the right way for everyone. By knowing that what may seem like a contradiction to one person may make complete sense to someone else, and that they may put every bit as much consideration into their viewpoint as the first person has (or perhaps more!) By being willing to try and understand the other person’s perspective, and remembering that “understand” is not synonymous with “agree with”. And, finally, by not seeing a dialectic as an excuse to attack or try to force the other person to choose between two black and white ways of seeing the issue.

Finally, I invite you to question how you approach those you disagree with, to include on really difficult, emotionally laden subjects, because you may not be completely at odds. Consider that I may agree with you on Opinion A, B, and C, all the way, but I may disagree with you on X and Y, and feel that Q and K are better options for me. It doesn’t mean I don’t still agree with you on A, B, and C, and I may even join forces with you on those. For example, I’m not a supporter of banning hunting, but I am a supporter of humane treatment of animals killed for meat, to include the quickest and most humane death possible. I don’t agree with trophy hunting or killing just for the sake of killing, but I’m okay with preserving the beauty of an already dead (natural death or not) animal for education, for a museum, or even for artistic expression. If you and I both think that bees and other pollinators need to be protected, my aesthetic appreciation of taxidermy doesn’t change that. But you may need to accept that I have different relationships with the bees and the deer, that lots of people relate to different beings and situations in varying ways, and that this sort of complexity is normal in this world.

Being able to understand and accept this complexity and the conflicts it may bring is, as far as I’m concerned, a more productive way of dealing with disagreements than hurling logical fallacies and invalidation at someone else. Instead of saying “I can’t see how you could possibly see things that way (and I refuse to even try)!”, try saying “Can you explain why you see things that way?” If what they say doesn’t mesh with your own opinions and you accept that disagreement instead of trying to force them to your way of thinking, at least you haven’t wasted your time with a pointless argument no one’s going to win and everyone’s going to resent. And you may still be able to find common ground on another issue that you can then join forces to work on. I’d rather have people approach me with that attempt at cooperation than accusations and fallacies; it’s a better use of scarce time and resources.

(One final note: as with many things, just because I can articulate things I think need to be improved doesn’t mean I don’t make the very mistakes I cite. If anything, this issue is closer to my mind right now in part because I can see where I screw up in this regard, to include recently. These posts are at least as much a reminder for myself as an invitation to others.)

Lupa Goes to the Death Cafe

Yesterday I attended Portland’s first Death Cafe. No, this wasn’t a group of stereotypical goths moping over Poe and lovely cadavers. Instead, Death Cafes are a new phenomenon, local events in which people meet in a cafe to eat cake, drink tea, and discuss the realities of death. They’re often organized by people whose work revolves around death, such as end-of-life specialists, hospice nurses, and the like. Rather than being a showcase for local funeral services or an evangelizing platform for a particular way of approaching death, Death Cafes are opportunities for people to come together and talk about this rather taboo subject in a safe, confidential and nonjudgmental environment.

Here in the U.S., death isn’t something most people talk about, not unless it’s necessary. That leads to a lot of people feeling unprepared for dealing with it when it happens, and I include myself in that. For all that I surround myself with death–the remains of animals, plants and fungi, none of whose deaths I caused or witnessed myself–there’s still a lot that I don’t understand or accept about it. I haven’t experienced the sudden death of someone very close to me, for example, and though I know how heart-wrenching it can be, I’m not entirely sure how prepared I am for it. Rather than sit in dread, though, I’d rather find out from other people what their experiences have been, and what advice they might have for the day when I go through the same.

And that was one of the key benefits from yesterday’s event. A Death Cafe primarily centers on small group discussion, usually three or four people to a table, all of whom are strangers to one another. Today we started with the topic of what brought each of us to the event, which naturally flowed into other topics over the next hour. Once we all had an idea of where each of the others was coming from, it freed us up to ask about each others’ experiences quite frankly. So I got to ask both a 25-year hospice nurse, and a woman who had recently lost both parents, what they had done and how they had felt when people close to them died, and it gave me a little more perspective. This helped to clear up the mystery just a bit, and while I still don’t at all relish the thought of my loved ones dying, I’m slightly less scared of how to get through those inevitabilities.

I think what surprised me the most about the discussion at our table was the amount of positive conversation that we had. It wasn’t just “Wow, I miss so and so, death is terrible for taking them away” or “I’m really scared of dying”, though those were touched on from time to time. Rather, the theme of our table seemed to be how death is a transformation, not just for the person who dies, obviously, but also for those they leave behind. And it isn’t just a matter of negative transformation, either. I listened to stories of people who journeyed through their own personal underworld in the wake of their loved ones passing, and who came out stronger, even happier and more at peace. They were able to take some of the worst experiences of their lives, and turn them into personal rites of passage that helped them adapt and move on while even more deeply appreciating the memories of those they had lost.

That resilience is incredibly inspiring. I have been through my own challenges–over a decade of daily bullying as a child, divorce, illness, and other low points in my thirty-four years. Yet I’ve managed to come through all of those; I’m still here, and I haven’t given up. And if I got through those things, maybe I can get through others in the future, to include continuing to live and thrive even when someone close to me has died. Plus there are other people who have been there who can offer their perspectives and support. Knowing I wouldn’t be alone is also helpful, and I was grateful to my tablemates for being so open and sharing in this.

We talked mostly about confronting the deaths of others, not so much our own mortality. I spoke of how my own death doesn’t scare me so much any more. While the idea of no longer being here in this amazingly beautiful and complex world is sad and, yes, still scary, knowing that I’m just a tiny part of a big, ever-cycling universe makes it easier to deal with my inevitable death. Any hypotheses about afterlives aside, as far as I can tell I didn’t exist prior to Samhain 1978, and I will cease to exist at some point in the future when my body decides it’s just not going to give a damn any more. But I do know that the molecules that make up my body have been bouncing around this crazy universe of ours for billions of years, and once they cease to be a part of this temporary conglomerate known as “Lupa” they’ll continue on their merry way. I feel better knowing that these tiny things that I touched, however briefly, will be forever changed in their course by having been a part of my life.

Of course, I would wager that if I were to find myself facing a terminal illness I probably wouldn’t be so calm about it as I am now, and I have a certain naivete that those who have been more closely touched by death, or who face it themselves now, lack. But at least for now I don’t have to feel so anxious about someday dying, and I can focus more on being alive right now. And I feel that may be one of the most important things Death Cafes may offer participants. If we can alleviate our fears and anxieties about death, it frees us up to enjoy and appreciate life more fully. Nothing is guaranteed except for the moments we have here in this world; better to make the most of them than to squander them on worrying over what may or may not come next.

If you’re interested in attending a Death Cafe yourself, here’s a list of upcoming ones on the official site. And if there’s not one scheduled for where you are, here’s how you can organize one yourself. There will be more held in Portland and I intend to go back to them; the ongoing conversation is incredibly valuable, and I’d love to see how it evolves.

Eating, Wearing, and Hugging Animals; Or, Why Omnivores and Taxidermists Have Feelings

The other day on my Tumblr, I reblogged a set of images featuring “pet animals” on one side and “food animals” on the other, with the statement “Why love one but eat the other?” in the middle. They were from billboards that ran in Toronto a couple of years ago. The message, of course, is that we shouldn’t eat chickens, pigs, and cows because they’re animals just like puppies and kittens are; it’s an attempt to turn people to vegetarianism or veganism.

Care of BeVeg.ca

Care of BeVeg.ca

I don’t think I gave the desired response. For one thing, I have reasons for not going veg*n. I’m an obligate omnivore due to various quirks of my body and its metabolism; I even have it on doctor’s orders that I need a reasonable amount of meat protein because I tend to get sick otherwise, even on a well-balanced vegetarian diet. And I don’t respond well to attempted guilt trips masked as appeals to emotion, especially when they present only one true way for everyone to do something. So I decided to respond with some non-rhetorical reasons why we eat cows and not cats:

Because generally speaking herbivores taste better than carnivores. Also, we’ve spent centuries selectively breeding cows, pigs, and chickens to be meatier and tastier, while we haven’t done that with cats and dogs. And it’s easier to raise herbivores as food behaviorally, especially because we have bred them to be more docile.

And it’s also cultural. There have been and still are cultures in which dog and cat meat is acceptable; it’s just that in Western cultures, where this sort of ad campaign pops up, it’s not acceptable. If you talk to anyone raised on a farm, though, you know that farm kids are raised with the idea that some of the animals end up as food, and that you can be attached to them and care for them and still accept that fact. If they’re from a hunting family they often learn that the same deer they hunt are also beautiful animals that can be admired, and this doesn’t have to be a contradiction. On a farm, you’re closer to life and death than people who shop at the grocery store and have never raised their own meat or gone hunting. I didn’t grow up on a farm itself, but I grew up in a rural area with lots of farms, and with the reality that if I am going to eat, something has to die, whether animal, plant, or fungus.

I have had people ask me before, “How can you say you love animals when you have dead ones all over your home? How can you appreciate them when you support killing and eating them?” Simple: like those farm kids I went to school with, I understand that death is a reality and an inevitability, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that defines my relationships with other living beings. Just because my existence is going to directly lead to the deaths of certain animals doesn’t mean I can’t have empathy for them and want them to have the best lives and cleanest deaths possible. I support both strict regulations in the care of domestic animals in homes and farms, and strict penalties for animal cruelty. I also support the protection of wildlife; I follow regulations surrounding animal parts as carefully as I can, and beyond what I need to cover personal and business bills I’m able to donate some money to animal-based nonprofits.

And I appreciate all of these animals both in life and death. I am ever grateful for wildlife sightings, urban and rural; the birds outside my apartment make me incredibly happy, and on the occasions I’ve seen a coyote or Douglas squirrel when out hiking, it’s been a highlight of the trip. But I also enjoy the beauty of well-crafted taxidermy that captures the grace and form of the animal when it was alive, and I’m fortunate to know some incredibly skilled taxidermy artists who are similarly appreciative of the wildlife whose remains they’re preserving. In a similar vein, I love how intelligent pigs are, I know what good pets chickens can be, and I think Highland cattle are one of the most adorable species of critter known to this world. But I am also grateful that I have relatively easy access to beef, pork, and chicken and the protein therein that keeps me going. If anything, my appreciation for these beings when they’re alive makes me more mindful of their remains once they’re dead, as well as the processes by which they went from life to death.

Vintage silver fox fur stole

Vintage silver fox fur stole

Is it hypocritical that I do eat pigs and cows and not dogs and cats? Perhaps. But just about everyone has some discrimination as to what animals will be harmed and which will not in order for them to continue living, and making a living. There are dead critter artists who limit themselves to vintage furs, roadkilled bones, and other relatively cruelty-free remains, but who will still happily scarf down a steak made from an antibiotic-stuffed cow that lived in a crowded stockyard and died badly in a factory farm, and eggs from a battery hen in a tiny cage. There are vegans who refuse to eat or wear anything that came directly from an animal, but who wear petroleum-based synthetic fabrics whose manufacture led to the deaths of countless animals through oil spills and factory pollution. Are these bad people? I don’t think so. There are very few people (thankfully) who actively want animals to suffer, and a lot of the rest of us would prefer that animals, even those we kill, were well cared for in life and death. Continuing public awareness campaigns help people to be more informed, even if they aren’t currently in a place where they can, for example, buy only free-range meat or raise backyard chickens for eggs. There needs to be a variety of solutions to match a variety of personal situations.

Which brings me to the last part of my Tumblr response:

Does that mean you should give up veg*nism and eat all the animals? Of course not. Nor does it mean that we should try to change American and other cultures to make dog and cat meat more acceptable. What it does mean, though, is that the above questions do have different answers, and a lot has to do with a person’s background and experiences in life. It’s not a simple situation.

I know, I know–there will be people who see this and say “Yes, it IS simple–don’t kill animals, period!” To that, I am going to have to agree to disagree for a variety of reasons. It is almost impossible to live a life that does not end in the deaths of other living beings, animals included. If your aim in life is to reduce the number of animal deaths as much as possible, then I wish you the best in it, and I respect you for it. But there are those of us who do to one degree or another have to and/or choose to benefit from the deaths of non-human animals, and our solutions to ethical conundrums may be different. I do agree there are plenty of people who aren’t mindful of where their meat and leather come from, and maybe they’d go veg*n if they really thought about it.

However, the assumption that anyone who eats meat and other animal products, or who is a leatherworker or taxidermist or similar artist, or who otherwise uses animal products–the assumption that we obviously haven’t thought the issue through enough, that we lack compassion, that we love animals less than a veg*n? I don’t agree with that, and neither would many of my omnivorous/leathery/etc. companions. Just because someone’s stance on an issue isn’t as extreme as yours doesn’t mean they’re acting from a place of ignorance, and I feel this fallacious argument in general is a big error in the discourse surrounding a lot of controversial topics.

Really, what I’d love people to take away from this is the idea that each person has their own relationships with the non-human animals we share this world with, whether they’re members of Pheasants Forever or PETA. And those relationships can’t be minimized to single sound bites; each one is the product of a unique lifetime of experience and thought and emotion. I feel this is a crucial thing to remember if we’re going to do anything other than argue and throw up defenses against each other. Even if we don’t agree on everything, we still have the potential to learn from each other, and at the very least have a more civil discourse over a complex, sensitive issue that affects far more than ourselves.

Skin Spirits and Sacred Remains on Samhain

I haven’t celebrated the cross-quarters (Samhain, Beltane, etc.) in years, and I generally don’t do purely celebratory ritual unless I’m invited to it (such as Pagan Pride Day rites and so forth). Additionally, I’m two days out from vending at OryCon this weekend, and since I spent a large portion of October too sick to work (thank you, food poisoning), I’m working hard to create enough new things to make my booth a place of all sorts of furry and feathered and beaded creations to take home. That means today was predominantly a “hide in the art studio and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t exist” day.

Except I can’t forget the rest of the world exists. My apartment is festooned with bits and pieces of wood, stone, and other organic findings from hikes and explorations, reminders of where I’ve been and where I’ll visit again. I almost always have documentaries about nature, human history, modern technological advancements, and the like going on while I work. Even when I’m holed up in my apartment for days, I never forget that there’s so much more outside those walls.

Gray wolf mask by Lupa, 2012

And then there are the dead critters. One of the perks of my art is that I get to work with the remains of animals from all around the world. So I have these constant reminders of the diverse ecosystems that have developed over thousands of years. I’ll probably never get to pet a spotted hyena or a Geoffrey’s cat in the flesh, but I can at least touch and examine bits of their fur as I stitch them.

I am also constantly reminded that these were once living beings who met their deaths largely at human hands, one way or another. These deaths often are terrifying, even when they’re relatively quick. Yes, death is a constant threat in the wild, and many of the wild animals whose remains I work with might otherwise have had a much worse death than a quick bullet–starvation, disease, infected injuries, or death in the jaws of a predator. But that does not remove our responsibility to make the deaths we cause be as humane as possible.

No animal enjoys dying, and this reality must be remembered. Even the gentlest death is still a living being suddenly being permanently deprived of its ability to interact with this world. The afterlife is not a fact, only a speculation, and it is small comfort to say “perhaps its spirit still roams”, when the only life we know for sure exists has come to a close. Even as I work with the skin spirits in my art and practice, I know that there’s a good chance that these, and all other spirits, are simply emanations of the human imagination, and that this life is all we get. Even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact remains that a living being has lost its vehicle for interacting with this wild, amazing world we live in. This is a loss of which we can be absolutely sure, and it is no small thing.

This–this is the foundation of my work with animal parts. My work with the spirits for the past fifteen years, developed through trial and error and experience, self- and spirit-taught–this is the heart of my artwork. The aesthetics and the flow are important, and yes, the ability to pay my bills is convenient. But from the time I picked up my first fox faces and deerskin scraps so many years ago, the spirits I discovered in them, and the stories of their lives and their deaths, have been the reason I do this work.

Fox tooth necklace, Lupa 2012

Every piece of art I make with fur and bone, leather and feather, is a piece of funerary art. Even the simplest claw necklace or tail is a testament to the animals who once wore the remains, every bit as much as an elaborate bone ritual knife or whole-hide totem dance costume. I think sometimes I take for granted that people realize that. And yet it’s more often that people recognize it in the bigger, more obviously “sacred” ritual tools, and I have to remind them that every little bit, even the snippets and scraps I use as pillow stuffing, is just as sacred and special.

Skin spirits and sacred remains: the crafted archetypal memory, and the physical memorial. These are inextricably tangled together in my work and my practice. Hence the prayers and rituals that go along with the stitching and the painting. For me, it would be unthinkable to treat these remains as mere “materials” to be used. These beings once lived, and those lives deserve to be honored and celebrated through my art and ritual.

Working almost every day with the sacred remains, from initial preparation to the process of art creation and into the purification ritual, I appreciate not only the lives that these animals had, but also the preciousness of my own life. As I grow older I become more acutely aware of my own mortality, and how fortunate I am to have made it–today being my birthday–to thirty-four years of age. The skin spirits sit with me as I work on their remains, and they whisper in my ear: “Remember, thou art mortal!”

As I sit here on the cusp of Samhain Day*, once I finish my break and return to my work, I will continue with the ongoing, daily rites and practices that honor these beloved dead. And these rituals aren’t just to honor the dead, but to remind me to protect the living. My partner tells me his favorite part of my work is the alchemy of taking the remains of the dead and turning them into money I can give to protect the living and their habitats. It is not only my own mortality I have to remember, but that of every other living being sharing this planet with me.

Mastodont skeleton at Oregon Zoo; photo by Lupa, 2012

Therefore, please do not mistake the work with skin spirits and sacred remains as one focused merely on death. Death is only the most obvious element of this work. Through my art and spiritual practice I have gained a greater appreciation of the long parade of beings that have come and gone on this blue-green planet, and for the urgent need we have to preserve the balance that our species has endangered so greatly.

The spirits remind me of my mortality, but they also remind me I am still very much alive. Perhaps the greatest honor I can do these beloved dead is to make the most of this life, not just as an isolated individual, but as a part of the great, tangled, interconnected web of life, death, and rebirth that we all have had our time in.

*A lot of people celebrate Samhain on Oct. 31 because of Halloween. However, Oct. 31 is Samhain eve, and November 1 is Samhain day. Yes, that makes me a Samhain baby. Also, I know some folks celebrate it the full moon before/right after Nov. 1 to be *really* authentic about it; I’m going with the more popular May 1 Beltane/Nov. 1 Samhain configuration :)

I Am Not There; I Do Not Sleep.

One of my very favorite poems has been making the rounds over on Tumblr. While often attributed to “anonymous”, with several versions floating around the internet and elsewhere, the creator Mary Elizabeth Frye’s definitive version of “Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep” is as follows:

Do not stand at my grave and weep,

I am not there; I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sun on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circling flight.

I am the soft star-shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there; I did not die.

This reminded me of Cat Chapin-Bishop’s No Unsacred Place post from a few weeks ago about green burial as well. I especially thought of the line “I would like you to find me in fresh strawberries, blood-red beets, tenacious bitter dandelions, and the shape of a robin’s breakfast”.

I also thought of Aaron Freeman’s essay, You Want a Physicist to Speak At Your Funeral. It may seem a little odd and out of place in a discussion about spirituality and the afterlife, but here’s a choice line from this beautiful piece of writing: “And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you.” Yes. This fits as well.

I cling to these poetic-prose statements because they’re so rare. Most of the time when people speak of what happens after death, at least in sentimental terms, they talk about heavens or paradises, places where you’ll get to see your loved ones who have gone before you, even your deceased pets. Near-death testimonies aside, we don’t have any hard evidence that these post-mortem places exist, or even that there is anything once our brains go dark for the last time.

Why do we tell the bereaved to remember these places, then? Because when someone we care for dies, we miss them terribly, and we wish they were there with us. But since we can’t see them any more, or touch them, or speak with them, at least not in the way we used to, we hold onto a hope that once we die we’ll be reunited. In fact, the afterlife is sort of the big reset button that so many religions and spiritualities promise us. All the crappy things that happen in life are supposed to be left behind once we shuffle off the mortal coil (assuming you’re not of the belief that you’ll get punished for any wrongdoing, no matter how small, from this life). Regardless, the afterlife is seen as some degree of escape from the realities and challenges of this world, and most afterlife discussions almost exclusively focus on incorporeal things.

Yet it is the raw physicality of another sort of life after death that comforts me when I think about my mortality and that of those I care for. I can guarantee that the temporary collective of molecules that has made up my body—and perhaps my entire being—will fall apart over time after my death. All these bits and pieces, nutrients and atoms, that have been in countless beings and places and things for billions of years, will continue their journeys into new conglomerates. There is, of course, no way to track where individual molecules go, just as right now I can’t trace the ones that leave me through elimination or exhalation or shedding of dry, dead skin cells.

But the general process is what’s important. This body, this form that people have held and touched and loved and interacted with, will disseminate back into the wider cycles of the universe. I will feed other living beings. I will become the building blocks of mountains, or perhaps coral reefs. I will join rivers and the ocean. And who knows where I’ll be? I like to think that my loved ones will remember me not in a specific raindrop, but whenever the sun-parched land is soaked with the autumn’s first showers.

You see? I will still be here. There’s no need to wait til your own death for me to be around. My imprint is saved in the “constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever”, as Freeman said.

And why waste that opportunity waiting for something else that may or may not ever happen? We don’t know for sure if there’s an afterlife, and we won’t know until we each reach that threshold. But we do know that all of us, alive or dead, are a part of that ongoing series of cycles of creation and destruction, matter and energy, that has been occurring since the Big Bang.

I hope that when I have my own green burial, that my loved ones will stand over that piece of land, touch the grass, and know that I am there—and that I’ll be forever expanding my influence from that place onward. Who knows where the molecules that were me for a while may end up next? When I am gone, look to the birds and the snow and the wind to see me again, and remember what I once was.

The Death of the Place That Raised Me

I am in a small town in Missouri, the place that I grew up in. It’s been a trip of many revived memories, as my mom dug a whole bunch of my childhood belongings out of a storage space in my old room, and I’ve been going through the bittersweet process of sorting through everything, deciding what mementos to keep, and which to let go of as resources to send back into the cycle. So I’m already in a mindset deeply tied into my life as it was over twenty years ago.

Which meant that when I drove to the little patch of woods by my old house that I explored so much when I was still in my single digits, finding that it had been entirely leveled and replaced with a brand new building was an arrow to my heart.

I am still in shock, and so disbelieving. I feel I’ve lost a long-time friend, perhaps one that I lost touch with as I moved away, but never forgot entirely and visited when I could. And I never got to say a proper goodbye. I had no idea that the last time I visited would be the very last.

I know, I know. I get that the fact that this place stayed “undeveloped” as long as it did, in a podunk little town pretending it’s a big city, was pretty impressive. It’s actually the second place that I’ve seen destroyed. The woods behind the house we lived in next, and that I am visiting now, was almost entirely removed for a housing development. The spirit there still lives; much-diminished, and much more jaded, it still lives in the remnants of the woods that flank the artificially widened creek that sluggishly meanders through as best as it can.

And that destruction happened over fifteen years ago, when I’d only had a couple of years to connect with the spirit there. That experience, coming home on the school bus one day to find all the trees save for a few down and shattered–that was a horrible introduction to adulthood, and it really was where my childhood came to an end. Today, even those old wounds pulsed achingly.

I am still angry. I haven’t “gotten used to it” or “grown out of it”. And I feel isolated as I sit in a place where most people wouldn’t understand why I’m so deeply hurt by this loss. I’ve already been told “Oh, but the pharmacy people are so nice!” and given the attitude of “development happens, get over it”. Invalidation after invalidation. And it hurts, it just hurts so much.

That place? It taught me the joy of the outdoors, the fascination with other species, and my place as a human animal. It was my refuge when I began to experience bullying at the age of eight. It was my first minor rebellion, as technically I wasn’t supposed to be over on that side of the hill. But mostly it was a place where I could allow myself to explore, both the physical landscape, and my imagination. I wasn’t just a little girl in a pink coat wandering through the brambles and trying to avoid poison ivy. I was a wilderness seeker, living in a little cabin in the woods. I was a wolf, hunting rabbits in the tall grass. I was a snake basking on a big rock. I was so many things, each time I sneaked through the narrow pathway in the poplars and into the trails around the cedars.

I spent so much time in that place, that little maybe-half-acre of scrub woods, and now–now I can never walk there again. All I can do is hope that the few pictures I took on my last visit, two years ago, are still on my old laptop, that I can have a little more visual aid to help strengthen my memories in the wake of seeing this horrible shift.

Underneath the foundations of that building are the remnants of root systems from scraggly cedar and poplar trees that I hid among when I was young. There, too, are the nesting sites of Monarch butterflies, quite possibly relatives of the one that I watched in its chrysalis every day for two weeks until it emerged one spring day. And there lie the bones of the garter snakes and box turtles that were descendants of the ones I would catch, observe briefly, and release. There are stones that I stood on, lifted up to explore the life hiding underneath–snakes, crickets, centipedes, and more.

I won’t go back this trip. I won’t go back to try and find any last remnants of my place. I can’t bear it. I know I shouldn’t hold it against the new spirit of this place that is just being born. All places have spirits, including built-on ones. And I’m sure the pharmacy building now there will develop its own spirit over time.

But it’s not my place. The spirit of the place I knew is dead. Gone. Living only in my memories, and maybe in the remnant memories of a few other people who saw it as more than just an open lot.

All I have left is one single pine cone. I was going to go back at this trip and collect a few more mementos. I’m glad I have the one that’s left. It’s on my place altar. I hope it can stay safe there. It’s my last physical connection to the place that had so much meaning for me.

When I get home, when I can get back to that pine cone on my altar, I’ll spend some time looking for the pictures on my computer, and put together a mourning ritual to help me grieve. I’ll wait until I get back to a place where I know my anger and my sadness will be respected for what they are, instead of having them minimized and invalidated. I’ll go to where I can be safely held in my hurt, and remember the place that held me when I hurt so many years ago.

Until then, it’s not “just a place”. I’m not just “making a big deal out of nothing”. I have to remember that. I can’t let my grief be derailed by others’ expectations of how I should feel or what should be important to me. I spent too much time living up to the expectations of others, and I’ll be damned if I deny my hurt any longer for a place that formed me in ways no human being ever did.