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Leaving It Behind

by on November 14, 2013

                                                                                              Leaving It Behind

                                                                                              by Marco M. Pardi

 “….ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”   Touching. Seemingly a completed cycle. But is it?

 Up through my twenties, on trips and while living in several places I deeply enjoyed solitary hours among Classical Roman era ruins in North Africa and my “hometown” Rome itself.  The various hours of the days and nights provided me with timeless fantasies of my ancestors going about their lives. I could see the same sunrise, pushing me into another mundane day or perhaps bringing new uncertainties about the Empire and the health of Pax Romana; the sunsets brought visions of navigating narrow city streets by torchlight to find a home lit by oil lamps. I felt the presence of my ancestors despite the intervening centuries of swirling languages, cultures, physical types and beliefs that I acknowledged only as historical details.

Somewhere in that period I read a rather large article addressing the phobias many people have toward anthropophagy, or cannibalism.  I learned that the dust now blowing into any available body orifice may have originated in the Ural mountains, far to the east. The clouds that I watched above the pines of Rome, Roman clouds, my clouds, may have finally formed from air currents sweeping across the Mediterranean in what I knew of in North Africa as the Khamsin, derived from the Hamitic Arabic word for fifty and referring to the 50 days of unrelenting wind sweeping from the Sahara. And I learned that in those air currents there were people, not quite the Valkyries, the maidens of Odin come to carry me to Valhalla as my Scandinavian wife to be would one day hope, but people nonetheless in all their particulate glory.

I was reminded that for the vast bulk of humanity’s course on this planet the dead, totaling many millions over time, have been discarded, left rotting where they fell, placed on elevated platforms or trees to desiccate and crumble, partially burned, buried in shallow graves, or thrown into moving water to wash up and rot elsewhere. And, I remembered my elementary school science: common matter comes in three forms, solid, liquid, and gas. 

So death is not the start of spreading one’s self thin.  In graduate school I took some archaeology courses, one of which was under the woman who would go on to become one of Anthropology’s demigods in the field.  She, and my faculty advisor strongly pressed me to go with her to Salt’s Cave, Kentucky for the important human habitation studies then going on there.  Already an experienced digger from other life adventures, I was not averse to the idea.  My job, however, would have been Chief Examiner of the Poop; receiving, slicing, and analyzing under the microscope daily prize finds of human coprolites so as to determine the components of the diet and the ratios represented.  It looked like fun. Not as much fun as the CIA operation that redirected the toilet plumbing in Blair House so Agency microbiologists and doctors could capture and analyze the excretions and determine the health status of a certain Soviet leader here for a visit. The Case Officers handling the operation developed a new meaning for “Incoming!”. Yes, Salt’s Cave would have been an interesting challenge, but I was otherwise occupied on a federal research project and in teaching undergraduates. I would have to “pass” on that opportunity.

Yet the concept stuck, as it were.  I did learn that the recoverable coprolites were in remote areas of the cave.  Any sudden calls answered outside left no trace as they crumbled away. But, away to where?

The marvelous world of time lapse photography has brought us more information than some people want as it enables us to view the decomposition process. When viewed outdoors we see the critical role played by ants and other insect scavengers. Actually, were it not for the many species of ants, other ground burrowing insects and worms we almost certainly would not be here at all. The constant churning of and burrowing into the soil enables environmental input into the nutritional cycle of the plants so critical to the “food chain”.  

As organisms die and come to earth they are disassembled, ingested, excreted, dried and blown away. Man, too, is an organism.  Excepting those placed in specially designed and sealed containers – far more elaborate than even the expensive coffins popular today, humans go through the same cycle albeit with some differences for those who have been embalmed prior to their deposition. The ants and other residents of the Earth’s crust eventually have their way, churning, uncovering, chewing and passing it on.  Even the desiccated human foot I found, still in its boot, early one Sahara morning after a night of shifting sand dunes had given up at least its liquid content into the surrounding sand, to be dried and blown on the wind. Perhaps someone in Chicago got an unexplained whiff of rotten sock.

In a rural area of Europe to which I had been sent temporarily I was drawn to an active cemetery to examine the grave art over time.  Within 50 meters of the entrance I considered turning back. Embalming was unknown.  Some of the graves were relatively fresh, and perhaps a bit shallow. Most of the fresh graves had token fences around them, to keep dog packs from harvesting a meal. And, some families had above ground mausoleums that functioned as a sarcophagus (Gr. sarco – flesh, phagus – eating <box>) that were rather breezy. The air was a clear fog.

Children passing on the road alongside strictly observed what some would call a superstition and others…..well. They hurried past, holding their breath all the way. Their issue was not the smell, or even some sense of hygiene; it was the belief that malevolent spirits from the graveyard could enter them and take their lives should they breath. I felt I could understand the origins of the idea.

Spending many hours in commercial aircraft and not being particularly fond of people in a physical way I happily directed the “fresh air” vent onto me at the start of each flight, especially on that long journey during which I became convinced a man two rows over had died sometime the previous week. It was many years before I learned, from a senior airline Captain, that only a portion of that glorious blast of air was fresh; I had been reveling in hair mussing blasts of every breath, sneeze, cough, armpit, and fart a winged dildo can hold. Later studies confirmed that certain airborne illnesses, such as TB, have been passed through aircraft exposure despite the filters in the systems.        

As camera technology improved we saw the imagery associated with a cough and a sneeze. Immense clouds billow out from the afflicted person, many thousands of droplets suspended for surprisingly long periods and landing on surfaces sometimes far from the source. Studies of public restrooms grimly elucidated the misty burst accompanying not just the flush of the apparatus, but also the spray soaking the “privacy screens” between urinals and the floors of the rooms. No thinking person would set down on the floor a briefcase or purse while using a restroom.

Of course, public accommodations also include hotel rooms. Recent studies have shown that the higher concentrations of fecal and aerobic bacteria and dermal tissues are found not on toilets and door handles, which get wiped by cleaning crews, but on carpets, bed covers, telephones, bedside lamp switches, and television remote controls. Indeed, the highest concentrations were found on the mops and sponges used by maids as they go from room to room, spreading the joy.

While working in STD I had occasion to accompany county health inspectors on their rounds of “adult book stores”. Apparently, many of these places cater to people more interested in viewing than in reading. Individual booths, about the size of an airline restroom, abound. There, the patron can plug quarters into a slot and view pornographic videos while sitting in darkness on a bench. Closing the door behind us, the inspector turned on a Black Light instantly transforming primordial blackness into a glorious galaxy of points and splashes of light: semen spray. Some inspectors admiringly traded stories of impressively speckled ceilings.

Hotel rooms, solo business travelers, in-room porn, and nary a blacklight on the housekeeper’s cart.

As we go through our everyday lives we swim in a soup of other people’s leavings, and contribute our own. The average adult human sheds 30,000 to 40,000 cells daily, many of them epidermal. Experienced realtors, and others of a sensitive nature can immediately sense that a house has been unoccupied for some time. How? Human occupancy leaves a visually imperceptible mist of floating cells, especially stirred up by our footsteps and the wind of our passing from room to room. As the floating bits of human land on our nasal receptors we “taste the air”.

Of course, there has long been an opportunity to leave something behind for the benefit of others; organ donor registrations are available in all 50 States. Apocryphal stories abound of organ recipients spontaneously developing preferences and abilities characteristic of their anonymous (to the recipient) donor. And now there is a new possibility: Poop transplants.

Clostridium difficile, a deadly bacterium which invades the human gut, is notoriously difficult to treat (hence the species name). All known antibiotic treatments have a maximum success rate of only 33%.  However, recently 15 of 16 recipients of feces transplanted from healthy donors recovered completely. Doctors at the MontefioreMedicalCenter in New York City hope to establish a poop bank from which they can take a stool, dilute it with saline, and insert it into a C.d. patient.

The news was heartening.  While training Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) Officers in the placement of Moore swabs in municipal sewage treatment plants, for the detection of various pathogens, I walked along the catwalks (I’m certain no cat would ever use them) over vast open tanks of incoming raw sewage. Thousands of stools swirled about, some of them photo worthy and likely with a story to tell. As they jostled about, like so many shoppers at a Wal-Mart opening, I wondered that so much goes to waste. Now we know. A veritable bank, hung like sausages, may await our morning contribution.

After I go behind Door Number 4 I have no plans beyond cremation for my “remains”.  A new trend rapidly growing is “green burial”; simple insertion in the earth with completely biodegradable clothing and box. This is nothing new, being practiced for centuries by Observant Jewish and Muslim populations.  But I recall those wondrous moments in youth spent watching dust motes float on a sunbeam. Perhaps my personal logo should be that circular arrow design on my recycling bin.   





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  1. P L WEDDING permalink

    Fascinating read, Marco. I’ve read about poop being studied (and tasted) by healers/medicine men etc. for their charges. Never thought about the bigger picture…of course, makes perfect sense!

    Spent an afternoon sitting in a cemetery (surrounded by monkeys) on the banks of the Ganges across from a temple where pyres held burning bodies. I decided on cremation then and there. Since that time, I’ve spread the ashes of my aunt, uncle, mom, dad and youngest brother. A good friend was buried in the “nature cemetery” across from Holy Spirit Monastery…peaceful place.

    I enjoy and learn so much reading your articles and emails. I especially appreciate your dark humor and deep compassion dancing in the same article. It makes me smile and shake my head.

    You are a mischievous mystic! ( -;



  2. Well, Marco, after this, my days and nights in a hotel room will never be the same !!!
    especially the nights….thinking of that bedcover !! lol !
    Thank you for sharing , as always ! as Dana said, you have this talent of beautifully merging different topics together !
    (actually i had emailed you this, but emails are not going through again, so am glad to have found this spot)


    • Thank you, Lory. Maybe when you perfect your out of body abilities you can travel without risk of touching anything. Marco


  3. and possibly hotel bedcovers there are cleaner!!


    • Lory, If I go to sleep at night on this side of the world, and you go to sleep at night on your side of the world, how do we meet? Marco


  4. lol ! you`re too smart for me !!! …or one of us could take a nap !! 😉


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