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Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death Hardcover – June 19, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

BERND HEINRICH is an acclaimed scientist and the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Winter World, Mind of the Raven, Why We Run, and The Homing Instinct. He writes for Scientific AmericanOutsideAmerican Scientist, and Audubon, and has published book reviews and op-eds for the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Among Heinrich's many honors is the 2013 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction, for Life Everlasting. He lives in Maine.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


If you would know the secret of death you must seek it in the heart of life. — Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

  . . . . Earth’s the right place for love; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. — Robert Frost, “Birches”  

Yo, Bernd —
I’ve been diagnosed with a severe illness and am trying to get my final disposition arranged in case I drop sooner than I hoped. I want a green burial — not any burial at all — because human burial is today an alien approach to death. 
   Like any good ecologist, I regard death as changing into other kinds of life. Death is, among other things, also a wild celebration of renewal, with our substance hosting the party. In the wild, animals lie where they die, thus placing them into the scavenger loop. The upshot is that the highly concentrated animal nutrients get spread over the land, by the exodus of flies, beetles, etc. Burial, on the other hand, seals you in a hole. To deprive the natural world of human nutrient, given a population of 6.5 billion, is to starve the Earth, which is the consequence of casket burial, an internment. Cremation is not an option, given the buildup of greenhouse gases, and considering the amount of fuel it takes for the three-hour process of burning a body. Anyhow, the upshot is, one of the options is burial on private property. You can probably guess what’s coming . . . What are your thoughts on having an old friend as a permanent resident at the camp? I feel great at the moment, never better in my life in fact. But it’s always later than you think.

   This letter from a friend and colleague compelled me toward a subject I have long found fascinating: the web of life and death and our relationship to it. At the same time, the letter made me think about our human role in the scheme of nature on both the global and the local level. The “camp” referred to is on forest land I own in the mountains of western Maine. My friend had visited me there some years earlier to write an article on my research, which was then mostly with insects, especially bumblebees but also caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and in the last three decades, ravens. I think it was my studies of ravens, sometimes referred to as the “northern vultures,” that may have motivated him to write me. The ravens around my camp scavenged and recycled hundreds of animal carcasses that friends, colleagues, and I provided for them there. 
   My friend knows we share a vision of our mortal remains continuing “on the wing.” We like to imagine our afterlives riding through the skies on the wings of birds such as ravens and vultures, who are some of the more charismatic of nature’s undertakers. The dead animals they disassemble and spread around are then reconstituted into all sorts of other amazing life throughout the ecosystem. This physical reality of nature is for both of us not only a romantic ideal but also a real link to place that has personal meaning. Ecologically speaking, this vision also involves plants, which makes our human role global as well. 
   The science of ecology/biology links us to the web of life. We are a literal part of the creation, not some afterthought — a revelation no less powerful than the Ten Commandments thrust upon Moses. According to strict biblical interpretations, we are “dust [that shall] return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7); “thou return unto the ground; for out of it thou wast taken; for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Genesis 3:19). 
   The ancient Hebrews were not ecologists, however. If the famous lines from Genesis and Ecclesiastes had been stated with scientific precision, they would not have been understood for two thousand years; not one reader would have been ready for the concept. “Dust” was a metaphor for matter, earth, or soil. But in our minds the word “dust” suggests mere dirt. We came from and return to just dirt. No wonder early Christians belittled our physical existence and sought separation from it. 
   But in fact we do not come from dust, nor do we return to dust. We come from life, and we are the conduit into other life. We come from and return to incomparably amazing plants and animals. Even while we are alive, our wastes are recycled directly into beetles, grass, and trees, which are recycled further into bees and butterflies and on to flycatchers, finches, and hawks, and back into grass and on into deer, cows, goats, and us. 
   I do not claim originality in examining the key role of the specialized undertakers that ease all organisms to their resurrection into others’ lives. I do believe, however, that many readers are willing to examine taboos and to bring this topic into the open as something relevant to our own species. Our role as hominids evolving from largely herbivorous animals to hunting and scavenging carnivores is especially relevant to this topic; our imprint has changed the world. 
   The truism that life comes from other life and that individual death is a necessity for continuing life hides or detracts from the ways in which these transformations happen. The devil, as they say, is in the details. 
   Recycling is perhaps most visible — as well as dramatic and spectacular — in large animals, but far more of it occurs in plants, where the most biomass is concentrated. Plants get their nutrients from the soil and the air in the form of chemicals — all bodies are built of carbons linked together, later to be disassembled and released as carbon dioxide — but nevertheless they are still “living off ” other life. The carbon dioxide that plants take up to build their bodies is made available through the agency of bacteria and fungi and is sucked up massively and imperceptibly from the enormous pool of past and present life. The carbon building blocks that make a daisy or a tree come from millions of sources: a decaying elephant in Africa a week ago, an extinct cycad of the Carboniferous age, an Arctic poppy returning to the earth a month ago. Even if those molecules were released into the air the previous day, they came from plants and animals that lived millions of years ago. All of life is linked through a physical exchange on the cellular level. The net effect of this exchange created the atmosphere as we know it and also affects our climate now. 
   Carbon dioxide, as well as oxygen, nitrogen, and the other molecular building blocks of life, are exchanged freely from one to all and all to one daily on a global scale, wafted and stirred throughout the atmosphere by the trade winds, by hurricanes and breezes. Molecules that have long been sequestered in soil may be exchanged within the local community over a long time. Plants are made from building blocks derived from centipedes, gorgeous moths and butterflies, birds and mice, and many other mammals, including humans. The “ingestion” of carbon by plants is really a kind of microscopic scavenging that happens after intermediaries have disassembled other organisms into their molecular parts. The process differs in method from that of a raven eating a deer or a salmon, whose meat is then spread through the forest in large and not yet fully disassembled packets of nitrogen, but it does not differ in concept. 
   DNA, on the other hand, though made mainly of carbon and nitrogen, is precisely organized and passed on directly from one individual plant or animal to the next through a fabulous copying mechanism that has operated since the dawn of life. Organisms inherit specific DNA molecules, which are copied and passed from one individual to another, and so it has continued over billions of years of ever-conservative descent, which has branched through innovation into trees, birds-of-paradise, elephants, mice, and men.  

We think of the animals that do the important work of redistributing the stuff of life as scavengers, and we may admire and appreciate them for providing their necessary “service” as nature’s undertakers. We think of them as life-giving links that keep nature’s systems humming along smoothly. We tend to distinguish scavengers from predators, who provide the same service, but by killing, which we associate with destruction. But as I began to think about nature’s undertakers, the distinction between predators and scavengers became blurred and almost arbitrary in my mind. A “pure” scavenger lives only on dead organisms, and a pure predator only on what it kills. But very few animals are strictly one or the other. Ravens and magpies may be pure scavengers in the winter, but in the fall they are herbivores eating berries, and in the summer they are predators living on insects and mice and anything else they can kill. Certain specialists, however, some with unique abilities, spend most of their time finding food in one way. Polar bears usually catch seals at their breathing holes in the ice, but on occasion they will find and eat a dead one. A grizzly bear will relish a dead caribou as well as one it has killed, but most of the time it grazes on plants. A peregrine falcon is a swift flyer that captures fl ying prey, while a vulture would not as a rule be able to capture an uninjured live bird, so it has to rely on large, already dead prey. Indeed, vultures, ravens, lions, and almost all of the animals we typically typecast as “predators” just as readily take the ailing and half-dead and the (preferably fresh) dead; they will not enter a fight for life with another animal unless they have to. Herbivores too take those organisms that are least able to defend themselves. Deer and squirrels, for instance, munch on clover and nuts but will gladly eat any baby birds that they find in a nest. Strictly speaking, herbivores take the most lives; an elephant kills many bushes every day, while a python may ingest but one wart hog a year. 
   The potential ramifications of recycling are almost as varied as the number of species. I hope to provide a wide view, and I give examples from personal experiences everywhere from my camp in Maine to the African bush.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 19, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0547752660
  • ISBN-13: 978-0547752662
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.4 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (64 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #599,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bernd Heinrich is a biologist and author of numerous books on the natural world. He lives in Richmond, VT, and in a cabin in the forests of western Maine.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Arthur Digbee VINE VOICE on March 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This book is not really about "the animal way of death" but about the way that each animal's death helps renew the life of other animals. That is, it is not about dying - - a good thing, I think - - but about rebirth.

As you may know from his other books, Heinrich is a very close observer of the natural world. He's also a very fluid and engaging writer. He'll introduce you to beetles that bury mice for food, the many animals that consume a dead deer, vultures, dung beetles, the ecosystem around the salmon who die after spawning, and other topics. It's all fascinating, and presented in a way that does not require a particularly strong stomach.

He frames the book in the story of a dying friend who was seeking a more natural way for his body to return to earth, It seems the choices are a waste of wood and metal in an airtight coffin or the fossil fuel and carbon emission disaster of cremation. Heinrich doesn't preach, but his sensibility is right: American society needs a more natural way to return our earthly remains to earth. Every other species already does it.
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36 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Mo VINE VOICE on March 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Within just a few pages of Life Everlasting, it's clear that Bernd Heinrich is a man with a very different perspective on death. A consummate biologist, Heinrich thinks nothing of putting out animals in various stages of decomposition, and waiting around to see what scavengers turn up and how they behave. And throughout the book's many different experiments and subjects (mice, deer, elephants, whales, trees), the results are unwaveringly fascinating, even illuminating. There's just one caveat: you might need a strong stomach to get through all of it.

Or not. I'm a squeamish vegetarian, and I loved this book. It turns the tables on our usual perception of death as about endings and personal grief and looks at bigger picture. Death not only makes room for life, but also sustains and enables it. From burying beetles that locate, bury, and raise their young in carrion to fungi that recycle dead trees into food and shelter for many organisms, Life Everlasting is not about dust to dust, but rather life to life.

Although short at just under 200 pages, Life Everlasting has a broad scope and introduces lay readers to many biological wonders, from the behavior of ravens to the composition of chalk and the curious life cycle of salmon. Not all the chapters are equally interesting to me, but all of them are enjoyable to read and clearly written. There's a substantial list of recommended reading at the back (including one of my favorite previous Vine books, The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story), but Heinrich never becomes pedantic with either scientific terms or academic footnotes.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By sneaky-sneaky VINE VOICE on March 23, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Life Everlasting is not quite what it appears, maybe the book's marketing is off a notch, or the enigmatic nature of the material beggars description. Much of Mr. Heinrich's book is actually a journal of his observations, deer and squirrels decomposing, and the various scavengers that make it happen. The author experiments with beetles, vultures, and ravens, attempting to ascertain how they find their food. A fairly light read at 200 pages, Bernd Heinrich utilizes sidebars to venture into territory that may be fresh for some readers, such as the role of scavenging versus hunting in human evolution (oh and don't get involved in that debate; various intellectuals will threaten you with pencils and other sharp objects!) The same analysis is made for Tyrannosaurus, and again, see above bracket for caveat.
Not many books cover whale falls, the term used to decribe dead whales sinking into the ocean depths where they subsequently host an extraordinary assemblage. If dung beetles, scarabs, and exploding deceased cetaceans interest you, then by all means, pick this one up.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Thomas Wallace on February 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover
I have read several of Bernd's books and am always amazed at how interesting he can make whatever subject he chooses to write about. I was a little skeptical about how he would make the topic of this book (death) interesting, but he not only did that but presented some very profound thoughts as well. The last chapter alone provided some concepts that will keep me thinking, and optimistic, for quite a while.
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful By jd103 on March 15, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I'm in strong agreement with the idea that we need a way of life which includes a more natural way of disposing of our dead bodies. When I lived in northern Minnesota, I hoped that someday my dead body would feed some wolves; now that I'm in Yellowstone, I've added grizzlies to my benefactors. And of course, every day here (mentioned in the book) we see the processes which are the subject of the book with many predators and scavengers feeding off elk and bison carcasses.

Despite my admiration for Heinrich's ideas and interest in the topic I felt the book was a little too scattered and random, moving from continent to continent, and from human history to ravens to sinking whales to insects to ravens. Of course, these are all connected, but I didn't really feel the connection while reading--I only felt like I was reading a series of short chapters on a related topic.

So for me personally, the book was a bit of a disappointment. For others with an interest in biology who haven't considered the larger ideas before, this could be a fine introduction.
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