I love to garden. The joy of observing the steady growth of a living thing, flourishing and burgeoning in your tender custody. Quite the opposite of my other pastimes, usually involving the very dead, or soon to be so. Yet, surprisingly, human corpses and gardening share a connection. Can grisly corpse-work somehow complement our horticultural interests? One prominent English surgeon and intellectual of the nineteenth century certainly thought so.
Sir Henry Thompson, 1st Baronet, born in 1820, was a renowned, well respected English surgeon specializing in surgery of the genito-urinary tract, which must have made him just super fun to talk to at parties. Thompson served not only with distinction at the Royal College of Surgeons, but also as surgeon-extraordinary to the King of Belgium following a successful lithotrispy on some pesky kidney stones. He was well published and studied under other prominent surgeons in Europe. Additionally, being something of a socialite, his obituary states that as a dinner host, he was known for his ‘octaves‘; eight prominent society members served eight dinner courses, at eight o’clock in the evening. How very fancy, but before you go bemoaning your lack of invitation to these distinguished soirees, I suggest you read on a little bit further.
In 1874 Sir Thompson helped found the Cremation Society of Great Britain, a group formed to advocate the benefits of cremation as an alternative to burial. Sir Thompson himself was quoted stating advantages for cremation to be not only in improving sanitary conditions within a crowded city such as London, but would “spare mourners the the necessity of standing exposed to the weather during internment.” (because although grandfather was great and all, bless him, it does become rather chilly outside from time to time. And the pub opens at 12). He also suggested it would also help ‘reduce premature burial’. Well, absolutely no doubt about that.
Even prior to cremation becoming legal in England in 1885, Sir Thompson, ever the forward thinker, was already envisioning a very special recycling program for the dead. When you’ve reduced a human being down to ashes and dust, Thompson mused, whatever should you do with the remains? Place them in an urn and give Uncle Bob pride of place on the mantelpiece? Scatter them in some geographically inconvenient location that family members secretly feel was rather unnecessary? (I mean, the white cliffs of Dover? There’s a perfectly good pier in Brighton, but oh no, it had to be cliffs…). No, said Sir Thompson, there is a better use yet. Waste not, want not, as the old maxim states.
In a curious article written by Thompson in the March 1874 edition of Popular Science, Thompson outlines a highly progressive yet ultimately cripplingly controversial plan regarding the remains of the dead.
‘Nature […] destines the material elements of my body to enter the vegetable world on purpose to supply another animal organism which takes my place. She wants me, and I must go. There is no help for it. When shall I follow—with quick obedience, or unwillingly, truant-like, traitor-like, to her and her grand design?’
Using the argument of the natural processes remaining unhindered, Sir Thompson insisted that rather than let our remains be held hostage from nature, whether buried or entombed in a some gaudy urn/fireplace ornament, our dust should immediately be utilized to aid the feeding of the ‘starving survivors of humanity’. Specifically, by using reduced human remains as fertilizer to aid in growing ample sustenance for the dinner tables of the country. Still want to go to the Thompson household for dinner?
He certainly thought this all through and had his math carefully worked out, bless his heart. His paper states that in an 1871 census, the population of London was placed at 3,254,000 persons, of whom 80,430 snuffed it during the same year. In terms of generated bone-dust, that would provide approximately 206,820 pounds of potential fertilizer available to help keep the nation’s cauliflowers at their most voluptuous.
He went further, indicating that the total of deaths throughout the country would provide even more of his vaunted plant-ash. If that wasn’t enough, and if you wanted to give your rhubarb a bit of a Continental flavor, he advocated importing ‘material from other countries less populous than our own.’
Understandably, the idea didn’t exactly take off. Despite the fact that cremated remains don’t make very good fertilizer, few people felt comfortable with the idea of distributing their loved ones in the backyard or a neighboring muddy field. It’s possible his concept was more satirical than true proposal, perhaps similar to Jonathan Swift and his rather hilarious musings on resolving poverty by having the proletariat eat babies (see A Modest Proposal – Swift, 1729), but in Thompson’s case, it seems likely he was quite serious.
Sir Henry Thompson died on April 18th, 1904 after a brief illness. He was cremated, which seems appropriate, and in lieu of viewing his final will and testament, I would like to believe his remains were scattered, ceremoniously, over a nearby cabbage-patch.
Ashes to Artichokes, Dust to Dill.