Ask a Necromancer, by Amanda Downum

21 Grams

Tim asks, “Dear Amanda: I have heard there is a finite amount of energy in the universe. Would I be right in believing that, after death, each human soul merges with the universal spirit in its energetic form? And the mass of conscious energy is recycled through all the people who live and die, and the great reservoir in the universe?”

I’m a practical necromancer, not a philosophical one. I’m more concerned with bacterial translocation than spiritual transmigration. The law of conservation of energy does seem to support this idea, though, and who am I to argue with thermodynamics?

In a similar vein, Chris asks, “Have you or anyone you know ever had direct confirmation of the existence of a soul?”

According to Dr. Duncan MacDougall’s experiments in the early 1900s, the human soul has a weight of approximately 21 grams. However, we’re lucky if the weights we’re given before we pick up decedents are accurate to 21 kilograms, so it remains difficult to test this hypothesis.

More seriously, I was raised to believe in the human soul, and in reincarnation. As a spooky kid and wee heathen, I grew up believing in ghosts and all manner of weird stuff. Like the poster says, I want to believe. I, however, have never had a direct experience with the supernatural or the spiritual.

The funeral home where I work is supposedly haunted. At least two of my coworkers have reported spectral encounters—one claims to have seen the ghost of a child, the other to have been touched by an unseen entity. I’m skeptical of such claims, but I’m also not about to discount someone else’s experiences. My big question here is why a funeral home–a modern building, especially, not some creepy Victorian manse—would be haunted, particularly by a child. If one subscribes to the idea that strong emotions or long habit anchors a spirit to a location, I can’t imagine any of our clients sticking around. Someone who’s worked there for decades, on the other hand… Come to think of it, I can’t guarantee that all of my coworkers are alive themselves.

As a writer, I can come up with all kinds of explanations for hauntings. Personally, I have found it harder in recent years to reconcile my belief in the soul as a core “self” with my understanding of neurochemistry and the mutability of identity. The human mind is so inextricably linked with the meat that houses it that it’s difficult for me to accept the idea of soul-as-personality. The great thing about human understanding, though, is that it’s constantly evolving, so I’m happy to say “I don’t know” and hope for further experience one way or another.

John asks, “Could you explain (in general) how the green technology used on Desmond Tutu’s body works?”

I can, and I have! For those unfamiliar with the technology in question, Archbishop Desmond Tutu requested and received aquamation as his final disposition.

As I’ve mentioned previously, aquamation, or alkaline hydrolysis, uses a mixture of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide, which is heated to around 160°C/320°F, pressurized to prevent boiling. Over several hours, this mixture will reduce a body to liquid and bone. The bones will then be pulverized like cremated remains and rendered into “ash.” The liquid contains amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap. It’s nontoxic and can be disposed of via sewage systems. It’s considered a “green” alternative to traditional cremation because it uses significantly less energy than a retort, and does not produce greenhouse emissions.

In the US, aquamation is available in only a handful of states, but hopefully access will increase as understanding and acceptance of the process grows. Visiting a facility that handles alkaline hydrolysis is one of my career goals, and I hope to one day be able to write in greater detail about the process.

Sometimes questions face a lengthy sojourn through the underworld before they can be answered, but don’t despair—all will be heard in time. Direct your morbid curiosity towards the submission form at, or to @stillsostrange on Twitter.

Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.

Return to Issue 10 | Support The Deadlands

Scroll to Top
Scroll to Top