Everyone hopes they’ll be remembered after death, but being famous IRL can be a blessing and a curse. And what if you’re remembered not for how you lived but for how you died? Jesus and Shakespeare may live on in human memory for many thousands more years, but take the case of Lucy, who died 3.2 million years ago in present-day Ethiopia, and is remembered for a simple accident of her final resting place. Then there are these tiny 99 million-year-old winged dinosaurs, who were barely hatchlings when they got tangled in a mess of tree resin and met their untimely end, arguably making a more important contribution to science in their short lives than you and everyone you know.
When it comes to leaving behind a corpse that will one day be an astounding fossil discovery for earthling/alien scientists to find in 100 million years, there are no guarantees. But you can stack the odds in your favor. Here’s how to leave funeral instructions that will maximize your chances.
Plan for a quicksand burial
The first step in any successful fossilization is a quick and complete burial. Many of the great dinosaur quarries were once shallow seas, mud pits, or flood plains, where the animals may have gotten stuck and rapidly covered in sediment. The faster the accumulation of materials on top of you, the higher the chances of preservation, both because it’s less likely that you’ll get dragged out and pulled apart by scavengers, and because pressure helps with preservation. If you have God-like powers to predict natural disasters, you could also try becoming entombed by ash raining down after a volcanic eruption, or by mudslides after an earthquake.
Skip the quicksand, and go for a traditional burial instead
Human burial rituals increase odds that corpses stay in one piece and preserved. Although your body might decompose into a pile of bones and teeth before you’re old enough to technically count as a fossil (10,000 years), they’ll probably stay generally in the same place, which could potentially ease later excavation and reassembly.
The ancient Egyptians clearly put a lot of thought into preserving their forms after death, and came up with complex processes to achieve this goal. Mummification typically involved dehydrating the corpse, wrapping it, and coating it in a resin to seal out moist air that would bring in decay. Today, the technology for human body preservation has advanced significantly — you can actually volunteer to have scientists replace all the fluids in your body with a sort of plastic, preserving your form almost exactly as it had been in life.
Find some permafrost
If you can get frozen and stay frozen, you’ll stay pretty well preserved. Woolly mammoths have been found in the Arctic from more than 10,000 years ago with exceptionally well-preserved skin and hair. Of course, if you’re thinking long term, this may not be the soundest strategy. Over millions of years, the planet’s climate and geology are quite fluid, and given the way things are going, you’d be hard pressed to find a stable piece of permafrost anywhere.
You’re going to need resin. Lots of it.
Some of the world’s most exceptional fossils are found encased in amber, which is fossilized tree resin. Resin is the perfect material for preserving organic material — it keeps moisture, bacteria, and critters out, and it’s transparent, so you can see what’s in it without having to crack it open and risk damaging what’s inside. Scientists even found a 46 million-year-old mosquito engorged with blood. Keep your Jurassic Park fantasies in check, though — DNA deteriorates exponentially after death and, even under the best of conditions, won’t look like much after a few hundred thousand years. The downside to amber fossils in the natural world is that they only preserve very tiny things, as tree resin does not puddle in large quantities. However, there are plenty of natural and synthetic resins available for purchase commercially, and it wouldn’t take much to manufacture a lacquered tomb.
Pick the right spot
Of course, body preservation is only half the battle. The other, maybe more important, part is putting yourself in the right spot to be discovered at a later date. Most dinosaur fossils are successfully unearthed because they were quickly buried after death, and those old rocks they became entombed in are only just now becoming exposed through geological processes that have brought them back to the surface, like the formation of mountains. If you want to stick around long enough to become a 150 million-year-old rock, you’re going to want to find somewhere relatively stable, geologically speaking. Avoid coasts, floodplains, and fault lines, where disturbances could shake up your eternal fame plans. Mark Norell with the American Museum of Natural History suggests picking somewhere in the Great Plains — maybe western Nebraska or northwestern South Dakota. “Those sorts of habitats, we know from excavating animals all over the world, are most likely to preserve fossils,” he tells Atlas Obscura.