Hard to pass on ecologically

Disposing of the remains of a beloved one is sadly not just an emotional ordeal. The bodies of deceased humans also present an increasing ecological problem in our crowded urban environments. The officiating clergyperson at the funeral may well say “earth to earth, ashes to ashes”, but in reality this is not happening, not without nasty complications:

  • When buried as deep as “six feet under”, the corpse is inaccessible to the topsoil microorganisms and/or oxygen necessary for decomposition. Even if buried shallower, the human body is simply too large for quick and efficient decomposition by microorganisms. It may take decades before the corpse is completely broken down, during which time toxic impurities are leached out by rains, contaminating the ground water.
  • Cremation doesn’t turn the body to just ashes. It also emits various of kinds fumes into the atmosphere – most notably mercury from dental fillings, various toxic heavy metals and the dreaded poison dioxin. It is estimated that one third of the mercury pollution in many industrial societies comes from cremation of corpses.

Kicking the bucket in a patented fashion

A Swedish biologist, Susanne Wiigh Mäsak, has now created a patented (in 35 countries) method of corpse disposal that at long last may make the funeralist’s ritual words ring true. The method, patented by the inventor’s company Promessa Organic AB, calls for a number of steps, where the central points are deep freezing by liquid nitrogen, followed by disintegration of the resulting brittle corpse into small, easily composted particles:

(1) The corpse is placed in a simple “transport coffin” and lowered into liquid nitrogen ( -196 oC).
(2) The extremely cold body is now brittle like glass, only more so. By lightly vibrating it for a while, it breaks down into millimeter-sized particles.
(3) The particles are mechanically separated from metals (dental fillings, etc). The water (70% of human body mass) is removed by vacuum, i.e. by freeze-drying.
(4) The remaining 20-30 kg of body particles is placed into a cardboard-like box made out of starch (from e.g. potatoes, corn, etc.).
(5) The starch carton is buried into the topsoil, where it will be completely decomposed in about six months. On top of the burial site a rose bush, a rhododendron or some other plant or tree is planted, literally transforming the remains (soul?) of the loved one into a flower.

Testament your soul to a cherry blossom

If the Promessa liquid nitrogen method catches on worldwide, then the last will and testament of many people may soon have a clause directing their lawyers to transform the soul of their departed clients into roses, dogwood flowers, cherry blossoms or jasmines. Of course, in harsher climates the choice may be more limited, ranging from austere cacti in desert regions, to humble juniper bushes in the Northern forests.


Mary Roach: Stiff - the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003, Viking publishers)
Promessa Organic AB: www.promessa.se
Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Oct 26, 2003

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