Elmer Machado has a large beard and an even larger thermos of coffee, which seems appropriate for a 6:30 AM meeting. The building where we meet is all glass and plants, a giant garden with 7 massive green cylinders on one side.
Elmer runs one of the City of Chicago’s main decomposition sites and memorial gardens for human remains. I couldn’t figure out what made them so full of energy until I realized we were meeting 4 hours into their work day: Elmer wakes up at 4:30 AM.
So first, what is a decomposition site?
Well, if you watch anything from Amazon*, it’s a body farm, where we harvest bodies to power communism. [laughs] If you listen to the City, or any other person involved in death care, then a decomposition site is part of death care: we receive the human remains of those who have passed on and opted into decomposition.
That decomposition happens in vessels, housed here, that generate soil for indoor gardens, vertical farms, biomes and arboretums around the city. They also generate soil for the public memorial gardens connected to this site. Each body generates about 1 cubic yard of soil. Since this is one of the largest decomposition sites in the area, we also do a lot of testing, particularly when it comes to agriculture and microbial energy: anything that needs a lot of soil or bacteria.
What did the city tell you my job title was?
“Decomposition Technician?” [laughs]
Okay! Well, not everyone can be a gravedigger. That’s what I call my apprentices, when we don’t need to call their jobs something fancy for Springfield -- they do all of the body placement. It’s funny though because almost all of the digging is for the trees -- we load remains in decomposition vessels, which doesn’t take much digging. Sometimes when they’re playing their music too loud I’ll yell “Listen up, gravediggers!” but they don’t respond to that.
None of the apprentices think my jokes are any good -- they think I gotta put more backbone into them.
I like to dig, but I’m getting older and more boring: I have to be the man with responsibility, talk to the city, talk to the scientists, talk to all the people at all the biomes and arboretums and farms where we send the soil.
I supervise a team of 8, and we serve the whole tristate area, even parts of Minnesota. They’re all apprentices, which means they get paid to learn the trade until they’re full members of the union.
Most of them will stay here for 3-4 years, then go back to their home cooperative and manage a recomposition site -- most of them are a lot smaller, just making enough soil for local farms and gardens.
A few of the real ambitious ones will try to find a cooperative that doesn’t have a recomposition site already and try to get one going.
A couple of them are just doing this to decompress while they study for the sanitation tests: those guys never sleep, they come out of work and go straight to the library. That’s why they like all that punk music, it’s so fast!
More power to them, to all of Gen PH -- they want to get stuff done! Not me though, I like my sleep, I’m not trying to move too fast.
You wake up at 4:30!
But I have a baby girl! She goes to bed at 8 PM, and so do I. I like being on her schedule, we get sleepy at the same time.
Do you usually get to see the sun rise?
Not really -- it comes up while I’m outside, but this is right before my lunch break and I’m not watching. I’m busy with soil tests, carbon measurements, all of that stuff. It’s a creative field for sure!
It’s beautiful out here though, even in the winter -- that’s when we focus on the science. That’s my favorite part: doing life cycle assessments, growing more finicky crops that died out during the 20s, like blackberries. Even during vortex weeks, we’ll cover up the glass in decomposition rooms and make sure the plants are warm enough, do paperwork, listen to the gravediggers’ punk music, dust the bodies.
For some reason, when it’s 12- below zero, that is the moment when people want to see their recently departed family members. Nothing like Chicago ice and wind to make people start thinking about death, I guess. That’s when I have to do the part of my job that isn’t digging: we keep plaques with names of everyone at the front of the facility, in the memorial gardens, so I will show people around that area, explain how the decomposition process works. They can take some soil home to use in their own biomes.
Is that hard for you?
Not really, no. I’m a creative, not a social worker. If people come to see someone, they’ve been talking to someone who can actually help them, who is trained around death care. And maybe this is messed up, but the way I think of it, if I’m seeing someone here, their friend or family member was lucky: they had someone who really cared about them, and they didn’t die in The Horrors.
Sometimes I’ll show people the decomposition vessels, but it’s not like I open them up or anything. They don’t see the bodies: it would be messed up even for me to see a friend or family member decomposing.
Has that ever happened? You saw the body of someone you knew?
I grew up near Chicago -- not in Lincoln Park of course, it was different then.
But every now and then everyone will see an old classmate, a coworker, unless they’re from a cooperative a ways away. If you recognize someone whose close to you -- a cooperative member, family or close friend -- you have to go to 3 death care sessions to keep working. Lucky for me I’ve never been very good with faces.
When you die, do you want to decompose here?
No! Put me somewhere with better music! I love these guys, but I can’t handle the old music. There are a couple labs in the South where they’re finding that different tones aid plant growth -- put me there, my daughter can take the train. I think that’s what I’m looking for after I die: I’ll decompose wherever, just play some quieter music.
Ologies, Osteology Episode