Bernd Heinrich,
Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

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 being just 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 books, The Mystery of Metamorphosis: A Scientific Detective Story), but Heinrich never becomes pedantic with either scientific terms or academic footnotes. He's a patient, detailed observer and has a knack for picking out the most interesting stories. His illustrations, which are on the cover and scattered throughout, add to the charm.

More than that, though, Life Everlasting offers some really piquant commentary on where humans and human death fit into these complex ecosystems. As top predators and undertakers, we've disrupted many food chains and ignored our interconnection with the biosphere; our current burial practices encase our bodies like hazardous waste and prevent us from being recycled back into other life forms. The final chapter is highly personal as Heinrich considers his friend's request for his body to be left in the woods and thinks about his own origins and unavoidable death. It also has some of the calmest and oddly reassuring words on death I've ever read. Heinrich concludes, "I see the whole world as an organism with no truly separate parts. I want to be connected to the grandest, biggest, most real, and most beautiful thing in the universe as we know it: the life of earth's nature."

Me, too. Read Life Everlasting. You don't have to be a biologist to appreciate the insights Heinrich offers us into life, death and the animal world -- which is, after all, our world, too.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

27 April 2013

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