Death Becomes Natural

As we get older, death can be a sensitive subject for us. The traditional process for dealing with the body of a recently deceased individual is something that is a large part of our culture. We generally have two images of what is done to our bodies when we die. The first one is the traditional burial. Embalming chemicals are placed in the body as a replacement for blood, the cadaver is dressed up and then placed into a coffin, usually made of metal or wood, and then buried six feet underground. Or, the process of cremation is used where the body is burned in an intense heat that leaves only bones, which are then smashed to dust resulting in the ashes that are usually put in an urn.

The problem with these two widely used and accepted processes is that neither approach is particularly good for the environment, nor are they respectful of the body, despite our beliefs. In a traditional burial, the corpse eventually decomposes into a toxic sludge that resembles a skeleton, but is hardly considered human. With cremation, the burning of the body releases greenhouse gases and mercury from dental fillings into the atmosphere, which is of course not good for the environment.

Ideally there should be a more natural process that returns us to the earth, since it is from the earth that we came from. A full cycle, if you will. And now there is such a process: promession. This technique has been developed by a Swedish biologist named Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and it took her a decade to find the most environmentally and respectful way to deal with our bodies once we have passed on. In 2010 the first of the facilities that will do promession will be open. This type of place is called a promatorium, and the first will be in Sweden, with plans to open more in 11 different countries already underway.

So how does promession work? First, liquid nitrogen is used to freeze the recently deceased to a temperature of around minus 196°C. Next the frozen body is placed on a vibration table that causes the corpse to shatter into miniscule pieces. Any remaining moisture is removed by a vacuum and a metal separator goes through the remains to ensure that anything remaining (e.g. fillings, parts of a pacemaker, etc.) is put off to the side. The end result is then placed into a box made of a natural product such as potato starch or corn.

After the breaking down process is completed, the burial is the next step. Rather than six feet under, the box with the remains is buried in a shallow grave, with a plant or tree then planted on top. After a few months everything has completely decomposed and the plant on top should be all the stronger.

So this is a more respectful way to deal with our loved ones’ remains, and it certainly appears to be better for the environment than the process of cremation or what happens to the decomposing body with a traditional burial. But will it be accepted by the general public? There is a lot of baggage that comes with death and burial, and most people will be leery of this new way of dealing with the body. Regardless if this new approach is accepted, it is a step in the right direction, however. All that is needed is our acceptance and willingness to move on from the past.

SOURCE: Glave, James. "Decomposting Bodies." Walrus Magazine. 21 July 2009.