Life Everlasting and the NecroPhorus Beetle

Publishes June 19th

Yesterday I received my advanced copy of Bernd Heinrich’s new book, Life Everlasting, which is not due out until June.

Here’s the synopsis from the book itself:

When a good friend with a severe illness wrote, asking if he might have his “green burial” at Bernd Heinrich’s hunting camp in Maine, it inspired the acclaimed biologist/author to investigate a subject that had long fascinated him. How exactly does the animal world deal with the flip side of the life cycle? And what are the lessons, ecological to spiritual, raised by a close look at how the animal world renews itself? Heinrich focuses his wholly original gaze on the fascinating doings of creatures most of us would otherwise turn away from—field mouse burials conducted by carrion beetles; the communication strategies ravens, “the premier northern undertakers,” use to do their work; and the “inadvertent teamwork” among wolves and large cats, foxes and weasels, bald eagles and nuthatches in cold-weather dispersal of killed prey. Heinrich reveals, too, how and where humans still play our ancient and important role as scavengers, thereby turning—not dust to dust—but life to life.

I immediately read the first chapter last night which covers the peculiar behavior of the necrophorus, or burying, beetle (the one with the red markings on the book’s cover).  The male beetle hunts for a dead mouse and once he finds one, he emits a scent to attract a female. A female arrives and the two carry the dead mouse to an appropriate location where they bury it.

They strip the mouse of its fur and cover it with an antibiotic fluid to preserve its meat.  They then mate and raise their young inside the mouse’s body just as if it were a nest, feeding the young beetles pieces of the mouse until its gone. The young then bury into the soil and come out as adults the following year. The author, Bernd Heinrich, observed the beetle activity and later dug up one of the mice only to find a clean skull and a ball of fur, with no decay or maggots. He also discovered mites that live on the beetles which serve to clear the dead rodent of any maggots or eggs if they are present.

Of course, I found all of this to be completely fascinating!

I’ve always been interested in death. I was not the “poke a dead possum with a stick” sort of kid, but I would often bring my bike to a screeching halt on a country dirt road to ogle over the occasional roadkill raccoon. When my pet hamster, rabbit, pigeon, chicken, dog, cat, or whatever other pet died, I usually put it in a box and buried it under a dogwood tree in our yard after saying a little prayer to bless its soul into Heaven.

There was quite a little pet cemetery at one time with crosses made from sticks or moss-laden bricks marking each grave. It’s funny how I can remember almost every animal I planted there, even some of their names. I still remember my black kitten PJ and the vibrant blue color of  his eyes, hanging from their sockets like marbles, when I picked him up from a roadside ditch one morning after he’d gone missing.

For a few years while I was in high school, my father worked in a funeral home.  He dug graves, moved flower arrangements from the chapel to graveside, buried people, mowed the cemetery lawn, and did other odd jobs as an undertaker’s handyman. He never brought his work home with him, but he did have some marvelous “spooky” stories to tell about things he witnessed – a dead man letting out a moan while on the mortuary table, another one urinating, a massive head wound completely concealed by the mortician’s artistic use of cosmetics.

Later, after I left home for college in Memphis, I spent my financial aid refund money on a superb Canon 35mm camera one year. My roommate and I liked to spend hours in Elmwood Cemetery photographing the grand monuments and statuesque memorials.  I still have numerous black and white photos from those shoots.

We later took a trip together to Savannah, Georgia to do the “book tour” of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil which consisted of a trip to the infamous Bonaventure Cemetery which appears on the cover of the book. Cemeteries still intrigue and entertain me to this day, despite the fact that I myself wish to be cremated and sprinkled when I’m gone, rather than being planted in the ground and memorialized with a grand monument of my own.

Heinrich mentions in the introduction of the book how “undertaking” does not get rid of a body but rather preserves it for a purpose.  That human purpose is usually for the sake of a memorial. His book goes on to explore other animals and species and their “way of death.”

Reviews of it have been mixed, and the religious aspect of death has already been mentioned in one review I read. So far, in my opinion, it’s a marvelous book, and at only 190 pages it’s sure to be a quick read. I appreciate it for its peculiar stories about animal behavior and in regards to death from a biological point of view, and I know enough to read it without judging it on a religious basis.

More about it later once I finish it.

The Sexton or "Burying" Beetle

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