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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And next, we can finally tell you that there is a way to get something for nothing. Say something happens in your backyard that needs attention, and without lifting a finger, without even noticing, mysteriously it's taken care of for free.

NPR's science correspondent Robert Krulwich has the details.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It begins with a...

(Soundbite of bang and crash)

KRULWICH: Yeah, kind of thwack against your kitchen window or the wall of your house. So you step outside and there lying in the grass is a little bird. And when you lean over and you look closely, you see it's dead. So you look away. And then maybe a day, two days later, you pass by that very spot on your lawn and the corpse is gone.

Dr. BERND HEINRICH (University of Vermont): Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: Totally gone...

Dr. HEINRICH: Yeah.

KRULWICH: ...and you didn't move it. So where did it go? Well, one possibility, says Professor Bernd Heinrich at the University of Vermont, is you have just received the services of a very remarkable pair of beetles.

Dr. HEINRICH: Well, they are burying beetles. They are the undertakers of the small animals in the forest: the little birds and mice, rodents.

KRULWICH: So if I'm a bird lying dead on a lawn, they would know that I'm there?

Dr. HEINRICH: Yeah. Very shortly after you die, you're going to emit some scent that they can smell apparently for miles.

KRULWICH: And because natural recycling is a very competitive business...

Dr. HEINRICH: They have to get there before the flies can get it, before a raccoon or a crow or a raven picks it up. So they work very fast.

KRULWICH: And these flying beetles are - how big are they?

Dr. HEINRICH: You know, as big as a big bumblebee.

KRULWICH: Which is not very big, if you're trying to hoist a dead starling or a dead mouse on your back and lug it off to soft ground. But when these beetles - and it's a family business, it's a mom and pop kind of arrangement, when they get you where they want you, they start to dig.

Prof. HEINRICH: They bury you. They start digging underneath you, removing the dirt and throwing it to the sides, until gradually, you start to sink down.

KRULWICH: So, how long does it take them to bury a whole bird?

Prof. HEINRICH: You know, in a night, and you're buried totally.

KRULWICH: Then, says Professor Heinrich, in a kind of, I'm not quite sure how to put this, in a sort of happy moment, the two beetles will mate…

Prof. HEINRICH: Yep.

KRULWICH: …which produces beetle babies safely underground…

Prof. HEINRICH: And they build a little nest for the larvae.

KRULWICH: Mm-hmm. And then the parents munch on the bird or on the mouse and they chew the food on behalf of their children.

Prof. HEINRICH: The young actually beg. They're sort of analogous to birds, to a pair of birds feeing their young.

KRULWICH: And after a few days, those babies mature and they become flying beetles. And they take off, refueled with bits of mouse or bird. And they rejoin the neighborhood.

Prof. HEINRICH: Yes, yes.

KRULWICH: And it's just this kind of finish, says Professor Heinrich, dying and then being scattered up and about everywhere that he wants when he dies. No tight coffin for me, he says.

Prof. HEINRICH: You know, being sealed up, totally removed from all the natural processes that normally occur with every animal on earth. It's very - somehow frightening. It seems unnatural.

KRULWICH: But I think, don't most people find that being eaten is the thing that's frightening and a little - they don't want to get eaten by a…

Prof. HEINRICH: No, I don't find that frightening at all. I find that comforting to be part of the eco-system.

KRULWICH: And he's not alone. There's an old Lee Hays song, sung by the great Pete Seeger…

(Soundbite of song, "In Dead Earnest (Lee's Compost Song)")

Mr. PETE SEEGER (Singer): (Singing) If I should die before I wake, all my bone and sin you take. Put me in the compost pile…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SEEGER: (Singing) …decompose me for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: You laugh, but, you know, there are a lot of people who hate the idea of being decomposed. So…

Prof. HEINRICH: Well, yeah, I don't think it's decompose that's the emphasis here, it's the grow and the compose. To be composed into grass, to be composed into ravens, to be composed into flowers and trees, you know, that's a comforting thought to me.

KRULWICH: It's not like you're looking forward to the idea, though.

Prof. HEINRICH: Well, I don't really relish being eating, anything like that. I think it's just part of the cost. And giving back, I realize I have killed untold hundreds of thousands to live. All of us have because we all live off other life. And just to remove ourselves totally so that nobody else can feed on us, just somehow it seems sacrilegious to me.

(Soundbite of song, "In Dead Earnest (Lee's Compost Song)")

Mr. SAGER: (Singing) All that I am will feed the trees and little fishes in the seas. When radishes and corn you munch, you may be having me for lunch…

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: But when you choose to be buried in a tight coffin, says Professor Heinrich, you do lock yourself off from the trees and the animals that you know, the critters that you live with.

(Soundbite of song, "In Dead Earnest (Lee's Compost Song)")

Mr. SAGER: (Singing) Worms, water, sun will have their way…

KRULWICH: Why not share yourself with the world that you know? He asks.

Prof. HEINRICH: I find that comforting to be a part of the eco-system.

(Soundbite of song, "In Dead Earnest (Lee's Compost Song)")

Mr. SAGER: (Singing) …and then excretes me with a grin, chortling, there goes Lee again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

KRULWICH: It's not everybody's way to get buried, but it is one way.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And if all this has you thinking about other burial ideas, Robert Krulwich has an even wilder one for you. The freeze, shatter and sprinkle option. You can hear about that and other fascinating human and animal rituals at npr.org.

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