Death is not an easy concept, even for the most hardened palaeontologist. Some may believe in heaven, and many geologists experience it on Earth – we find ourselves in some delightful places. But what should become of our bodies once we return to dust? On a recent field trip to Namibia, I came across the most wonderful answer.
Alison Laidlaw was a friend of the Earth Science Department at Edinburgh University. In her later life she came into some money, and suggested it be used to start a travel fund for young geologists. Alison took a great interest in the trust, and would come into the department to hear seminars from recipients. As she became increasingly infirm, students took to visiting her at home to share photos from their travels.
When Alison passed away in 2007, she left her fortune to the trust, and its name was changed in her honour. The trust is managed partly by the friend that first connected her with the Earth Science department, Professor Godfrey Fitton.
When Godfrey contacted the crematorium, he discovered that Alison’s ashes were left unclaimed; they now lie among the piles of rocks and papers in his office.
The Laidlaw-Hall Trust supports three to four groups of travelling students each year. All that Godfrey asks is for a pinch of her ashes to be taken along and left behind at a particularly interesting or beautiful spot.
“Alison was a wonderful old lady who would have been greatly amused by our efforts to disperse her ashes around the world”.
Part of Ms Laidlaw now lies in all sorts of remarkable places: the mid-Atlantic ridge, an active volcanic dome on Montserrat and the shore of a prehistoric lake in Utah, to name a few examples.
One of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, the Zebra River Canyon in southern Namibia, is a world away from life in Edinburgh. There isn’t a lot of activity, but the occasional mountain zebra swings by to remind you that you are on African soil. It is a special site for palaeontologists, as the rocks host some of the earliest animal life on Earth. We laid a small part of Alison Laidlaw to rest in the heavenly Zebra River Canyon, and I can think of no happier ending for the dust of geologist.