Dead on

Thursday’s D.I.Y. Dharma class in Vancouver touched on contemplating your own death, a well known Buddhist object of meditation. Coincidentally, so did the previous Sunday’s meditation session with Zen monk Wayne Codling (Sojun Enso) in Victoria.

All of which reminded me of the following passage early on in David Darling‘s provocatively titled 1996 book Zen Physics — the Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. As walking “meat-based time machines” (per Vic slam poet Skawt Chonzz) with built-in expiry dates, this is uncomfortable information we should have.

As soon as a person’s heart stops beating, gravity takes hold. Within minutes a purple-red stain starts to appear on the lowermost parts of the body, where blood quickly settles. The skin and muscles sag, the body cools, and within two to six hours rigor mortis sets in. Beginning with a stiffening of the eyelids, the rigidity extends inexorably to all parts of the body and may last for between one and four days before the muscles finally relax.

Two or three days after death, a greenish discoloration of the skin on the right side of the lower abdomen above the cecum (the part of the large intestine nearest the surface) provides the first visible sign of decay. This gradually spreads over the whole abdomen and then onto the chest and upper thighs, the color being simply a result of sulfur-containing gases from the intestines reacting with hemoglobin liberated from the blood in the vessels of the abdominal wall. By the end of the first week, most of the body is tinged green, a green that steadily darkens and changes to purple and finally to black. Blood-colored blisters, two to three inches across, develop on the skin, the merest touch being sufficient to cause their top layer to slide off.

By the end of the second week the abdomen is bloated. The lungs rupture because of bacterial attack in the air passages, and the resulting release of gas pressure from within the body forces a blood-stained fluid from the nose and mouth — a startling effect that helped to spawn many a vampire legend among peasants who had witnessed exhumations in medieval Europe. The eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrude beyond the teeth. After three to four weeks, the hair, nails, and teeth loosen, and the internal organs disintegrate before turning to liquid.

On average, it takes ten to twelve years for an unembalmed adult body buried six feet deep in ordinary soil without a coffin to be completely reduced to a skeleton. This period may shrink drastically to between a few months and a year if the grave is shallow, since the body is then more accessible to maggots and worms. However, soil chemistry, humidity, and other ambient factors have a powerful effect on the rate of decomposition….

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