Every day , when I drive , I come across roadkill, sometimes small and sometimes larger. It is there for a day or two and then it is gone. Billions and billions of these carcasses everyday , all over the world, and they all disappear eventually. Ever thought what happens to them ? How does Nature dispose of them so quickly , so quietly and so efficiently? These and other such questions are answered by Bernd Heinrich in his book “Life Everlasting : The Animal Way of Death“.
In it, Heinrich describes what happens when carcasses are left out in the open . Depending on the type of carcass, different types of scavengers ranging from botflies and beetles to ravens , porcupines and bears descend upon it and dispose of every last scrap . As is plain , it is an astonishingly efficient process and there is something very right about it : the death of some sustains the life of others . Heinrich’s book discusses this phenomenon as well as other fascinating questions such as whether early humans gained their food by hunting or scavenging , or both. I have only read an excerpt so far but intend to read the rest of it at the first oportunity.
One insight that I found fascinating is that Man is the only animal to have removed himself from this cycle of death to life .We humans are the only ones in all creation to either preserve or destroy dead bodies , often at great cost. Either we bury them where they cannot be got at by scavengers, or we cremate them. Why do we do so ? I think this is a practice carried over from ancient times when the belief that the dead would be resurrected on the Day of Judgement led to the idea that the body needed to be preserved . In these modern times , I do not think we seriously believe that we need our physical bodies in the hereafter ; however , old practices die hard . It is noteworthy that followers of religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism which believe in re-incarnation do not bury or preserve the dead ; they cremate them and scatter the ashes. The idea is to free the soul of its earthly ties and allow it to proceed to the next step on its journey. In a sense, the bodies are returned them to Nature. A more direct way of achieving the same would be to expose them in the wild, but our inherent squeamishness prevents us from doing so.
The only people who follow this natural process are the Parsis or Zoroashtrians .These people, followers of Zoroashter, emigrated from Iran and settled in India mainly in Bombay (Mumbai )and in the state of Gujarat . They are a very small community , well-known in India for their philanthropic activities . When a Parsi dies , his body is carried to the Towers of Silence and there exposed to be disposed off by vultures .Any remaining bones are thrown into a deep well on the property.
As a child in Bombay , I remember watching vultures circling over the Towers of Silence on Malabar Hill and being repulsed by the sight. Now, I have come full circle . Why should Man be different from all the other animals? Isn’t this part of the cycle of life and death . Isn’t this one way of benefitting others and returning to Nature ? I understand the thought on an intellectual level though I must admit I’d have a problem applying it to myself , even if it were legal to do so here in the U.S.
P.S : I have read elsewhere that this process of disposal is running into problems in Bombay because vultures are becoming scarce . I also wonder what Parsis do when they emigrate to other lands . How then do they dispose of their dead ?