By Kaylee Warner
Death rattles, the last breath of oxygen escapes for the final time. Just as consciousness came into being, it fades. The body is bound to Earth. Its physicality will remain long after the energy of the mind and spirit vanish.
Immediately upon death, the bacteria, protozoans, and nematodes that live in the gut, digesting the food that gave the body life, are the first to eat. Without cellular regulation, enzymes freely break down cell structures through self-digestion or autolysis. As cell walls crumble, their liquids pour out, taking the enzymes with them to attack nearby cells. Necrophagous insects swiftly swarm. Blowflies (Calliphoridae), flesh flies (Sarcophagidae), and houseflies (Muscidae) arrive – they settle in, staking temporary homesteads. Quickly they lay eggs in the eyes, the mouth, or the open wounds. Once hatched, the maggots wriggle forward in mass to stuff themselves on body fat.
Soon thereafter, the blood begins to pool and drain, the body stiffens into rigor mortis. The flesh putrefies, laid seize to by catalyzed microbes. Bacteria now sit to feast, digesting tissues and cells. The lack of oxygen leads to anaerobic respiration and the gaseous by-products, hydrogen sulfide, methane, cadaverine, and putrescine, emit a stomach-flipping miasma. But this smell of ammonia-rich gas attracts the necrophagous insects.
The maggots, now at the height of their lives, wield their hook-like mouths, drooling digestive enzymes into the holes they make – and the recycling of the body begins in earnest. More blowflies and flesh flies materialize, beetles and mites emerge. These are the predators of death, here not to fill themselves with human flesh, but to hunt maggots. The body bloats as bacterial digestion creates more and more gas with nowhere yet to escape. The build up of pressure wrings the fluids out of the cells and tissues, and the body cavity becomes a dense viscous swamp. But the cavity walls soon collapse.
Fluids from the body seep out and into the soil, dark colors conglomerate, driving pH higher into alkalinity. The body turns from green to purple to black. The stench intensifies. The insects have by now devoured any solid flesh. This period is the height of insect colonization; several generations of maggots pal around, predatory Rove (Staphylinidae) and Hister (Histeridae) beetles lay hill upon hill of eggs in the corpse, parasitoid wasps bury their eggs in the living bodies of the maggots and pupae. An entire ecosystem emerges, enmeshed and temporary.
Weeks go by and any of the hull and bits and tendon of the body still standing dries and starts then to ferment in the presence of butyric acid. Mold grows over any leftovers in contact with the ground. Everything hardens, and the maggots start to starve while beetles gnaw ravenously on bits of human hide and ligament. The cheese fly finally arrives, feasting on any remaining moist tissue. Mites, moths, and some bacteria break into the stacks and twigs of hair fragments. As they eat and shit, the human becomes little more than compost – except for the indigestible, whitening bones.
The body is repurposed, reused, recycled. Names and societal contributions are forgotten, buried, and engraved onto stone that weathers away. But life persists. And death persists.
Kaylee is a junior environmental studies major with a minor in sociology and in art at Ithaca College. She loves painting and photography and often can be found outside in her free time.