Archaeoentomology is a strange little corner of archaeology. Its practitioners search for signs of ancient bug life—fossilized eggs, old fly pupae, the like—in dig sites to tell, for instance, whether a body lay exposed before burial. One area they’d really like to know more about is what moves into coffins with bodies once they’ve, ah, started to go to earth. The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on your snout, to be sure, but which worms?
In 1991, German hikers found a surprise on an Alpine trail: a dead body. It turned out the man had died some time ago–around 5,000 years earlier. Researchers guessed from his scattered belongings that the iceman had died a lonely death from the cold and an arrow wound in his shoulder. But now, based on the way his belongings were scattered and the timing of his last meal, some archaeologists think the iceman named Ötzi may have had a proper funeral.
Though many previous studies have looked at the body itself, ScienceNOW reports that archaeologist Alessandro Vanzetti and his team looked at all of the iceman’s gear. They used a modeling technique called spatial point pattern analysis to make a map of how Ötzi’s goods–including axe, dagger, quiver, backpack, and unfinished bow–got to their final resting places. Specifically, the analysis determines how Ötzi’s surroundings froze and thawed over time. The researchers say the scattering is consistent with a ceremonial burial and that Ötzi’s tribe may have placed his possessions around him on a nearby stone platform. The study, which ScienceNOW calls “provocative,” appears in Antiquity Journal.
No one dreams of leaving a lasting carbon footprint on the world when they depart. But if it’s a choice between that and being reduced to a brown soupy liquid and a pile of bones, which option would you take?
The California legislature is considering allowing funeral homes to provide a third alternative to burial or cremation. Instead of hauling out the backhoe or firing up an incinerator to dispose of human remains, funeral directors could offer a method called alkaline hydrolysis or “bio-cremation.” This technique uses hot water, pressure, and sodium- or potassium-hydroxide (the strongly basic chemicals often referred to as lye) to break down the body’s tissues into simple molecules in a matter of a few hours.
Proponents of bio-cremation say it’s the eco-friendly death option. They note that cremation produces air pollution and greenhouse gases, while burials use tons of wood for caskets and involve treating bodies with hazardous embalming chemicals.
Four other states have already approved bio-cremation, but before funeral homes can offer the service, they have to figure out what to do with the environmentally friendly liquid remains. Last week, an undertaking service in Minnesota asked its local city council for permission to pour it down the drain.
Out of respect for the dead, or reverence for the city’s sewer system, or maybe just gut-level disgust, the council rejected the proposal.
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Over four hundred years after his death, the man known for moving the sun to the center of the solar system made a move himself.
On Saturday, at a medieval cathedral at Frombork on Poland’s Baltic coast, the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus—whose ideas were once declared heresy by the Vatican—was reburied with full religious honors.
After a stint in city of Olsztyn, Copernicus’s remains returned to his original resting location (under the cathedral’s floor), but his grave got an upgrade. After his death in 1543 he lay for centuries in an unmarked grave, but his new plot has a black tombstone with six planets orbiting a golden sun. The ceremony concluded a several week tour of a wooden casket with the astronomer’s remains. Read More
For those people seeking some long-term postmortem respect, you could always go the route of the Royal Tenenbaum epitaph and have your hyperbolic greatness engraved upon a headstone. But we all know weather eventually gets the better of those words, and besides: Why settle for one measly sentence when you could speak directly to your descendants from beyond the grave?
To build a history of how Earth’s climate has changed over centuries, you need something long-lasting that’s been around the whole time—long-lived trees, or cores from ice in Antarctica and Greenland that has built up over the years, or maybe gravestones.
Gravestones? They’re actually ideal candidates, standing in one place and receiving little touch or attention from the living. If you’ve ever tried to read inscriptions in an older cemetery, you know what the elements can do to the stone as atmospheric gasses dissolved in the rain wear it down. But to some climate scientists, the amount of wear is raw data attesting to the climate history of the area.
Internet junkies (which includes an increasing majority of humanity these days) now have one less reason to fear death: Sites like Eternalspace.com can preserve their online lives forever.
Virtual cemeteries and online memorials are springing up around the Internet, from companies that use funeral homes as middlemen. A virtual grave site can be purchased for a loved one, followed by digital amenities and individual accessories, such as a mausoleum, flowers, and religious icons (for $5 and up).
Entrepreneurial ideas like these have sprung largely from the role that Facebook and other social networks have nabbed when a death occurs in social circles. People often use social networks to let others in the network know of a friend’s passing, or distribute details of a funeral, for example. Facebook can also declare a deceased person’s page as in a “Memorial State,” which restricts access to approved family members and friends. Facebook usually requires an official death notice or news item before making the change.
The remains of an elderly man found in a Polish cathedral in 2005 have now been confirmed to be that of Copernicus, the 16th century astronomer famous for displacing Earth from the center of the universe. A team of Polish researchers have matched DNA extracted from a tooth and a femur bone to that of a strand of hair found in one of Copernicus’ old books.
For all his revolutionary ideas, Copernicus was never particularly famous during his lifetime, at least not enough to have a marked grave. (He didn’t publish his heliocentric treatise De revolutionibus until 1543, the year of his death, for fear of persecution.) Scientists knew he was one of the anonymous burials in a cathedral in Frombork, Poland, but they didn’t know which one. So they used radar to scan all the bodies to find one about 60 to 70 years old, the astronomer’s age when he died. The DNA evidence confirms that they got the right body.
Standard coffin burials are known environmental hazards, involving high levels of hazardous chemicals and metals at every step. The body is first embalmed with formaldehyde (arsenic and mercury, thankfully, are no longer used), then placed in either a wood coffin (covered in varnishes, sealers, and preservatives) or a metal coffin (full of lead, zinc, copper, and steel). In America, the casket is then placed inside a concrete liner before burial in the ground—using enough reinforced concrete every year to construct a two-lane highway from New York to Detroit.