How to Decompose

Chloe Manchester
Featured Image: Escape-ism © Tonya Russell 2019

My family has long instilled in me an anxious Protestant need to be good at everything and work myself to the bone. We must even be good at dying. I have been practicing. The death, the instant of its occurrence, is no longer interesting to me. I am drawn in by what comes next—the after.

I am no good at decomposing, but I’ll get there. It seems important here to mention that for the past three years I have been living in a rain forest. To walk down to the beach, one must make one’s way through so many years of organic death: dead leaves and trees and animals that create the forest floor I walk across. I consider mulch and compost as I consider my death.

It has been too cold to practice decomposition. I shake too much in the winter to be successfully dead, and cold stalls decomposition anyway. I am out of shape, it seems. I had a relative, a few generations back, preserve her body like this, by freezing herself in the midwestern winter. Too modest for a coroner, she was left in the living room with the windows open until the Indiana earth thawed enough for a burial. I sometimes wonder what process her body went through, after that makeshift preservation through the winter, and then what happened once she found her way below the earth, come spring.

To decompose is to transgress. Acting against anti-aging creams and makeup. Through my decomposition, I am taking final ownership over my body, free from expectations of youth and beauty. Holding this thought inside of me, I walk outside in soft clothing with my hair greasy and sticking out at strange angles, and I act out my death in this forest. I am dumping my own body to be found by some poor college student just looking for a quiet place to get high.

1. Do not take a water bottle, and do not go too far. It’s a ten minute walk from your apartment to a part of the forest where you can see no one and hear nothing. You carry nothing with you save for the things you are never without: keys, wallet, phone, pocketknife.

2. Wear comfortable clothes. You do not. You wear whatever you wore that day and it is never comfortable. You should wear comfortable clothes. Your favorite jeans that you don’t mind getting dirty and that hoodie that you’ve had for the last five years. Wear your normal shoes.

3. Lie on the ground. You must have dirt beneath you. Fully on the ground. Do not ball your jacket up and use it as a pillow, you are in no coffin. You may lean against a tree if you need to. Feel the earth beneath you. The dirt, the mess. Lay your hands out at your sides, palms up or down, but your hands must be open. Try not to think about the leaves brushing against you being bugs.

4. Close your eyes. Do not listen to music. This is one of the more difficult parts of decomposing. You do not exist without audio input, sounds to drown out your own mind. You cannot afford to be be distracted from your task by the music. Lay on the earth with nothing. Listen to the silence of your body, the noise of the dirt.

5. Feel your body sinking into the earth. You’ve been out of your mind lately, or your mind has been out of you, and your body feels both heavy and light. Your torso is sinking, your legs floating. Your mind and body existing and dying separately. You will be in this place for a long time and the dirt and leaves and decay around you will pile up, eventually shrouding you in a death other than your own. Your body itself will soften. Your skin will sag and peel, your organs turn to mush and food for the plants and ferns you’ve placed yourself under. Ground yourself in the earth.

6. You must consider your own decomposition. Think about what will decay and become undone first, your skin or your pants. Your skin is thin and breakable; it will go first. Your jeans, thick denim, old-school Levi’s too short for your legs, are so processed the cotton can no longer be considered organic matter. Your jeans will cover your skinless bones. Hair and teeth last forever and you are sorry you have not taken better care of either. Think about how your post-death life might begin.

7. Forests are better than fields are better than parks. You are not going to be laid out thirty feet from children shrieking on a playground. A field, maybe, if you are in the Oklahoma of your childhood. This is subjective. Forests scare you. Old, ancient, so much bigger and more stable than anything you will ever be. Since you moved here three years ago, you have worried about your death in that forest a ten minute walk from where you sleep. It has visible layers of life and decay—a warning or reassurance? You are never sure.

8. Think of your body decaying and being eaten. There are bugs and you are carrion. There are raccoons and you’ll do. The deer are vegetarian—mostly—but you don’t know what else is out there. When will your eyes fall out of their sockets, and will the birds have a hand in it?

9. You must be careful not to fall asleep. You are lying on the ground with your eyes closed and maybe the sun is on your face. It is understandable to want to sleep. Do not do this. You are practicing. You have a job to do. You must concentrate on your decomposition. You were raised by a mother with roots in the midwestern farmlands and death is no excuse for rest. Feel your death. Do not fall asleep.

I keep up this practice as best I can, when I remember, when it’s not too cold, when I am not tired or at work or any number of almost good reasons. I worry that I will not be good enough when the time comes, my body already so bad at the things that come naturally to other people. Perhaps my skin will melt off of me and congeal rather than turn to dust as it should. Perhaps my bones will act like salt in the earth and prevent new growth above my corpse. And so I practice, and when I do, I feel the earth overtaking me. Little by little, moss starts to form on the soles of my feet and the palms of my hands.

Chloe Manchester graduated from The Evergreen State College with a BA in Creative Writing and Literature. Her work has previously appeared in Salt Hill Journal and Miracle Monocle. Chloe’s favorite color is birds.


Tonya Russell is a photographer of color with works forthcoming in numerous literary journals 2019.