The Straight Dope | Straight Dope | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Straight Dope

The Straight Dope



Forget cremation, forget embalming--when I go, I want to go in style. For some time now, I've been wondering how to get my mortal remains fossilized. I know that soft tissue doesn't normally fossilize, but there must be some exceptions: for example, the Petrified Forest in Arizona. What kind of conditions are necessary, and how long will it take? Our Creationist friends are of the opinion that fossils are remains of animals that existed before the Flood; does that mean a man can become a fossil in a couple thousand years? --Forever Young, San Pedro, California

Oh, I dunno. In my experience, with the right fluids, you can get pretty fossilized in about two hours. Unfortunately for our purposes, the effect usually isn't permanent. For long-lasting results you need more elaborate techniques. But first we'd better define our terms.

Strictly speaking, a fossil is any vestige of past life embedded in the earth's crust. This includes the frozen mammoths of Siberia, whose bodies were preserved soft tissue and all. It just so happens I have here a slender volume entitled How to Deep-Freeze a Mammoth, by Bjorn Kurten. Though largely a whimsical meditation on archaeology, the book does offer a few practical hints for prospective fossilees: (1) arrange to have your remains placed on a steep south-facing hillside during winter in the high arctic tundra; (2) see that said remains are protected from predators until frozen solid; and (3) wait. In spring, when the topsoil thaws, your corpse will slide to the bottom of the hill and, with luck, get buried in mud. If the mud is thick enough, your body will remain frozen in subsequent years and thus be preserved indefinitely.

The problem, of course, is that your carcass has to stay frozen, lest decomposition resume. (As it is, most of your internal organs will likely have putrefied prior to initial freezing.) This is not ideal if your plan is to leave something your great-grandkids can display on the mantelpiece. One alternative is mummification, which requires an extremely dry climate, or else preservation in a peat bog. If neither of these sounds fossillike enough for you, you could try getting trapped in amber (fossilized tree sap), though this seems to work best with small Baltic insects, e.g., Roman Polanski.

If what you really want is to get lithified (i.e., stoned in the literal sense), your best bet is to chuck this bourgeois attachment to skin and have your corpse buried in sediment percolated by groundwater containing calcium carbonate, silica, or the like. Your (ahem) "soft parts" will soon decay but with luck your bones will get caulked up with minerals in. . . oh, I'd check back in a century or two. If you absolutely must have soft tissue, you could conceivably have yourself mummified first and then... aw, who am I kidding? If you're that desperate, get yourself bronzed. My advice: resign yourself to going the way of all flesh. People today are such wimps about these things.

Is the earth getting heavier or lighter? After all, we've littered the cosmos with a lot of NASA stuff, which should shave off a few pounds, along with vapor escaping from the atmosphere. On the other hand, there's a lot more people and meteorites around than there was in 8011 BC. What do you think? --Edward M. Smith Jr., Los Angeles

Puny humanoid, you think the pitiful efforts of mankind have appreciably altered the mass of the earth, reliably estimated at 6 sextillion, 588 quintillion tons? (And if you don't think getting that sucker on the scale was a bitch... ) If so, shed your illusions. It's believed the earth gains anywhere from several dozen to several hundred tons per day due to meteorites and meteoritic dust--10,000 to 100,000 tons a year. (Sorry, but estimates vary widely.) This far exceeds any losses. The weight of the people, incidentally, has increased the mass of the earth by zero, for the obvious reason that we are but dust, and unto dust we shall return. Net change pound-wise, nada.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Add a comment