If you ordered The Chopping Channel, the latest album from the experimental sound-collage band Negativland, your package will come with a small packet of human ash, scooped from the burnt remains of erstwhile band member Don Joyce. The band appears to have taken their packaging inspiration from the illegal drug market: The ashes, in a small plastic baggie, could easily pass as packets of cocaine.
Making that mistake, surprisingly, would not be especially disastrous.
Negativland does not explicitly say they want their fans to snort their late band member’s ashes, explaining instead, in an interview on Boing Boing, that they are “for the listener to repurpose and reuse.” If they did, though, they wouldn’t have been the first to propose the idea: The Rolling Stones’s Keith Richards has admitted to snorting his father’s remains, and former members of Tupac Shakur’s crew, The Outlawz, claim to have smoked the late rapper’s ashes. As far as we can tell, all of these ash inhalers came away mostly unscathed, for reasons that are largely chemical.
What’s really inside the baggie labeled “actual human remains?” The process of cremating a human — which involves searing dead flesh at a temperature of 1,400-1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for one to three hours — is essentially a method for, as CremationResource.org points out, “[reducing] the body to its basic elements.” Once the 60 percent of the human body that is water evaporates, the rest is broken down into six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. (Traces of some weird metals, like chromium and cadmium, can also be detected in negligible amounts.) The adage “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” in this case, is thus confirmed to have a biological basis. In other words, to snort a human, is to snort dust.
That’s not to say that snorting dust — human or otherwise — is a great idea. As anyone living in an especially polluted city is well aware of, regularly getting small particles stuck in your lungs is not only irritating, but can lead to asthma, emphysema, and pulmonary disease. If a Negativland fan were to snort Joyce’s ashes, he or she would, as Slate points out, most likely swallow most of it in a process similar to coke drip — or simply sneeze it out.
While snorting the last physical remains of Joyce, and promptly expelling them back into the void through your nostrils, seems like an act befitting a band named for one of Krautrock’s darkest, bleakest anthems — we suggest finding a less physically taxing way to pay homage to Joyce. May we recommend pressing his ashes into a musical record instead?