We Are Made of Stars: A Look at Human Ashes Under a High Powered Microscope

Human ashes as seen under a high-powered microscope. (credit: Gabriela Reyes Fuchs)

Everything changed for Gabriela Reyes Fuchs the day she got that phone call from her Father. A physician who saved many lives during his long and successful career, now his own life was at stake. He had been diagnosed with Leukemia, and things didn’t look good. Gabriela hung up, and caught a flight to Mexico where he lived.

Six days later, her Father died.

She watched the scene before her as he lay on a black bag, ready to be zipped up. She was perplexed. How could this be it? How could life be so…final?

What did dead even mean?

A photographer who’d always understood the world visually, she couldn’t shake a thought that she knew was crazy, yet didn’t question once — she needed to see his ashes under a microscope.

Gabriela went to a prestigious university nearby and asked the scientists to give her access to their lab. They explained to her that human ashes had been analyzed under microscopes for a long time, and the resulting images were simply black, white, and gray. One of the scientists told Gabriela that if she didn’t believe it, she could take a look for herself.

Using a new, high powered microscope, she put the slide she’d made of her Father’s ashes under the lens, and bent down to peer into the eyepiece.

All at once, her grief faded into peacefulness.

(credit: Gabriela Reyes Fuchs)

This wasn’t dead. It was the universe. It was like a telescope pointed upwards at the night sky. Instead of mere human ashes, she saw multi-colored nebula that resembled images taken by the Hubble telescope.

A turquoise broadness lit the expanse, while a purple meteor shower illuminated a cluster of planets in the distance. Clouds of lightness and darkness abounded, dotted by stars emitting lights of orange, green, red, and blue. Looking at her father, who she’d thought was gone, she now understood her loss in a completely new way.

“All my perceptions of reality, of life and death, were instantly crushed”, Gabriela said in her 2018 TEDx talk. “It was like floating in space, but at the same time being that expansive space. All the fear disappeared. I felt no separation from anything.”

This wasn’t just a case of her Father’s ashes, either. All human ashes are now known to resemble the beautiful, multi-colored, star-filled, expansive universe.

Nor is this just the stuff of artists and spiritual gurus.

In 2017, a study of 150,000 stars proved that humans and our galaxy have 97% of the same kind of atoms. Though they’ve been at odds for millennia, perhaps science and spirituality have more in common than meets the eye — after all, the origin of humanity is, in fact, the heavens.

Your life can be traced to 13.8 billion years ago, when the universe began with the Big Bang. Within a second, it cooled enough for particles to form. Within a few hundred thousand years, these particles combined to make the first simple atoms — hydrogen and helium. Over another few hundred thousand years, gravity created swirling gases that formed large discs, and the first stars were born. From this moment on, primordial stars appeared in the billions and cast the first light on the universe. Inside their helium cores, new elements were created. For the first time, huge quantities of oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen were fused into existence — this is exactly what your human body is made of.

Like their human decedents, all stars eventually come to an end because there is not enough energy to sustain them. So they collapse and detonate. 13 billion years ago, the death of the first generation of massive stars spread new atomic elements into the void. Now for the first time, the universe contained everything necessary for life to exist. Their death gave you life.

You are literally made of star dust.

Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver, a senior fellow at the Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory, and his wife, Iris Schrijver, professor of pathology at Stanford University, wrote about it in their book, Living With the Stars: How the Human Body Is Connected to the Life Cycles of the Earth, the Planets, and the Stars.

“All the material in our bodies originate with that residual stardust,” says Iris, “and it finds its way into plants, and from there into the nutrients that we need for everything we do — think, move, grow”.

When Gabriela bent down to peer into the cold, metal eyepiece of the microscope, and she saw her father’s body as it once was, what did it tell her about the true nature of loss? If after we die we return to our most fundamental state, could it be that nothing — and no one — is ever really lost?

Carl Sagan famously said “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”

Not long ago, I was invited on The Today Show to talk about an essay I wrote on Medium about almost dying, and how it felt. As I sat across from the famous meteorologist turned Today Show host Al Roker and he asked me to describe my experience, something overcame me. I’d had my speaking points ready to recite, but in that moment — on live TV in front of 2 million viewers — I suddenly looked up at him and said, simply: “it was weather”. You see, when I almost died, what I saw before me, and simultaneously felt myself as part of, were the clouds, the wind, the sun, and the rain. As my body began shutting down and my breath dissipating, I experienced myself as the cosmos, just as Gabriela saw her Father had become.

And as odd as it may sound, for months after almost dying, I longed to return.

If you look closely, our physical world lays bare what we intuitively know, and deeply long for in life, and in loss. After almost dying, I poured through hundreds of scientific studies — ecology, biology, astronomy, physics — and I kept finding this connection, again and again. It seems as though the more science advances, the more our connection to “something greater” makes itself apparent.

Gabriela will never get her Father back, as she knew him. Losing someone you love is undeniably painful, and wrenching, and chronic. But love transcends our own needs. Love — true love — means wanting to know those you lost are not lost. That they are not alone. That they made their way to somewhere…greater.

Isn’t it most telling that we lose so much magic in the journey from childhood to adulthood, yet we never lose our wonder in looking up at the stars?

Somewhere, deep down, we know…

Nothing is ever really lost. Ever.

Image taken by NASA’s Hubble of a galaxy that has been home to a number of supernovae, explosions that occur when stars die.

(You can see more of the amazing star-like images Gabriela Reyes Fuchs captured of her Father’s ashes, as well as her other photography, here.)

I write about serious tech stuff for work. But here, I tell true tales from my wacky, wonderful life. (read more: www.christenobrien.com)

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