Fragments from

Fort Douglas Military Cemetery:
Reanimating Death

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Winter. My feet create knee-deep punch holes in the soft snow as I beeline from marble gravestones to trees, and back to the sandstone bench; it is my observation base. The rusty red of the stone conveys a false warmth that saps my own heat, leaving my legs numb where they touch the bench. Blindingly-white snow scatters sunlight in all directions. Despite full sun, temperatures are below freezing, supporting the longevity of the powder that blankets the ground and dampens the bustle of cars and buildings a stone’s throw away. The cold has stripped the foliage from black locust trees planted along the perimeter of the fenced area, leaving pruned trunks as tall sentinels waiting, watching. The Fort Douglas military cemetery is in a deep, cold slumber. As the setting sun takes the last rays of light with it, the shadows of gravestones stretch like spectral tailings, beckoning me to follow them into the past.

Photo of the cemetery on April 14, 1947 by Hypo Van Porter.
Used by permission from Utah State Historical Society, Collection MSS C 400, No. 7089a.

Ever watchful, the black locust trees planted in 1864 loom over the cemetery. The sentinels placed along the perimeters have survived over 150 winters, but the first one was planted in the valley a few decades earlier by the Mormon pioneers of Utah. The trees were most likely chosen for a variety of characteristics, chief among them their drought tolerance and ability to grow in poor, sandy soils. Their hardiness is greatly attributed to the tree’s ability to fix nitrogen, a key nutrient, due to the symbiotic relationship they have with N-fixing bacteria, who free up the element into a usable form, living in their root nodules. The Rhizobium bacteria are not just confined in relationship to the black locust tree, but all other legumes; they are among the few microbes we understand more fully. Many more teem in the soil, responsible for the decomposition of organic material that frees up nutrients to be absorbed by other organisms. Typically, the myriad of microbes would cycle matter from the tree’s own decaying flower and leaf litter, but the introduction of human remains in the cemetery intervenes, interrupting the nutrient cycle with implications beyond a single tree species.

When a body is introduced into the ecosystem of the miniscule a “cadaver (or carcass) decomposition island”, or CDI, is created. These are hotspots of increased microbial activity due to the high-water content, small carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and abundant nutrients making the human body so readily decomposable. Within the first year of burial, the body of a soldier goes through several stages of decay where different microbial actors command the scene. Those that have evolved to grow quickly increase in number with the burst of nutrients early in decay. Then, as the processing of nutrients depletes the oxygen in the soil, different microbes adapted to anaerobic metabolism multiply. As time goes on, actors once prolific fall into the process of decay themselves, increasing the diversity of the nutrient pool and drawing in the participation of more complex microbial species. Different stages of decay offer different environmental factors, promoting entry and exit of microbial matter that increases biodiversity, landscape heterogeneity, and processes of cycling nutrients. All three are foundational for sustaining a healthy, functional ecosystem where life can flourish.

The cemetery is a place of paradox: a place of death, but also life. The soil carries the remains of those who’ve departed from this earthly realm, and because of those remains, billions of microbes thrive. Their activity embodies and manifests life after death: our expired physical matter provides an immense rush of nutrients, propelling the energetic ebb and flow of microbial composition and function that translates death into life-giving forms. Once a part of a living soldier, a nitrogen atom may have traveled through summer, fall, and winter to embed in the heartwood of the black locust tree that grows above the soldier’s remains.

Spring. A warm breeze rustles the black locust branches, which have begun to accrue tiny buds, into a swaying motion as pliant as a young dancer’s fluid limbs. I sit on my sandstone bench, enjoying the feeling in my legs and feet as I look across the cemetery. More birds call out their songs, and the thick blanket of snow has melted, percolating moisture deep into the soil. If I listen hard enough beyond the busy street activity below, I can hear the groaning of growing pains as roots tap deeper and branches stretch higher. The receding cold allows sluggish microbes to increase their metabolism, the whirring and churning a low hum building in volume, as if life were waking.

~ Katherine Bui (Spring 2019)



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For further reading:

Carter, David O., David  Yellowlees, and Mark Tibbett. “Cadaver Decomposition in Terrestrial Ecosystems.” Naturwissenschaften 94, no. 1 (2007): 12-24.

Cobaugh, Kelly L., Sean M. Schaeffer, and Jennifer M. DeBruyn. “Functional and Structural Succession of Soil Microbial Communities below Decomposing Human Cadavers.” PLoS ONE 10, no. 6 (2015): E0130201.

Haskell, David George. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.

Parmenter, Robert R., and James A. MacMahon. “Carrion Decomposition and Nutrient Cycling in a Semiarid Shrub–Steppe Ecosystem.” Ecological Monographs 79, no. 4 (2009): 637-61.

“Robinia pseudoacacia.” In The CABI Encyclopedia of Forest Trees, edited by CABI. CABI, 2013.