Alternative funeral arrangements: what happens to us after we die?
Image credit: Coeio
Alternatives to traditional body disposal methods might seem offbeat, but many people believe that ‘greener’ ways to deal with our mortal remains will appeal to future generations concerned about managing their eco-profiles post mortem.
Our desire to limit the harmful impact our lives have on the environment shapes many big decisions we make during the journey from maternity ward to mortuary. With respect to that final point of departure, a sense of eco-responsibility is increasingly applied to end-of-life decisions. Until recently, apart from burial or cremation, there have been few lawful options for body disposal, even though, in ecological terms, traditional methods waste natural resources and/or cause harmful pollutants. It will become even more environmentally impactful as burgeoning populations mean more bodies have to be dealt with.
Increasing interest in the greening of body disposal is evidenced by the emergence of ecologically sensitive alternatives to ground interment and incineration either available now or promised by the end of the decade. Their inventive application of green science and technologies, emphasis on disposal choices as personality tributes, plus an increasing awareness that conscientious lifestyle choices should be mindful of long-term impacts, could prove attractive to those concerned about what will happen to their bodies after death.
Some alternative processes, such as those based on alkaline hydrolysis or freeze-drying techniques, have been seeking market take-up for years, while newer concepts, which explore applications of biochemistry and micro-organisms, have taken advantage of crowd-sourced funding to support initial set-up and proof-of-concept development.
Compared to burial and cremation – and other traditional methods like committal at sea – these alternatives will, for the foreseeable future, be the chosen method for a tiny percentage of funerals each year, but even a tiny percentage of a growth market could achieve significance over time. Their prospects, to some extent, rest on how well the alternatives can match established methods in terms of practicalities such as duration of each disposal, says associate professor Ruth McManus at the Sociology and Anthropology Department of the University of Canterbury, who has studied alternative body disposal trends.
“The alkaline hydrolysis process [for example] for individual bodies still needs further refinement and development before cost/benefit balance works in its favour in relation to cremation,” McManus explains. “Given time pressure to process cremations – linked to the number of bodies that have to be managed – the hard fact is that cremations can deal with remains more quickly [than any viable alternative technologies] as they stand. The difference of an hour or so here and there is make-or-break for a busy crematorium. The technology needs to be further refined to meet requirements, to make it worthwhile financially.”
Furthermore, any claims made by the alternatives regarding their operational environmental savings – i.e. that they use less energy, water and other materials – are largely theoretical, because no-one really knows how estimated consumption figures will change once a given alternative solution enters full-scale operation.
Other factors play a part in eco-cremation uptake. Medical institutions and other facilities, which have a requirement for on-premises disposal of human remains, may find alternatives to cremation the only viable option where local environmental controls forbid them to the install new incinerators. This has already been the case in the US.
“Thousands of families [in North America] have had the [alkaline hydrolysis] option become available locally,” says Samantha Sieber, VP of research at alkaline hydrolysis specialist Bio-Response Solutions. “More approvals are coming through to allow the use of this technology. There are 16 US states and three Canadian provinces that allow this method of disposal. [But while] I can place a machine in any medical school with a simple approval from the state Department of Health and/or Department of Environment, the funeral industry is governed by different laws.”
Alkaline hydrolysis is a technique in which the deceased (in a wool coffin or silk/wool shroud) is placed in a steel chamber on a purpose-designed apparatus that is then filled with a mixture of water and some form of liquid metal hydroxide. It is then heated to around 160°C (320°F) under high pressure, so boiling does not occur. Over the course of a cycle that lasts about three to four hours (according to physical size), the body is, in effect, reduced to its chemical components.
The end result is a quantity of tinted liquid (it comprises amino acids, peptides, salts and sugars), which is drained away into municipal water systems, and porous bone remains that can be further disintegrated into dust, either as part of the same machine process or separately in a cremulator. This produces the equivalent of cremation ashes, which can then be returned to mourners.
“The white bone ash is returned to the family in an urn, as happens with flame cremation, so outside of a quieter and less environmentally-damaging process than flame cremation, the [mourners] will see no real difference,” says Sandy Sullivan, founder and director at Resomation UK, which supplies alkaline hydrolysis machines called Resomators.
Over the last decade, Sullivan has played somewhat of a lead role in highlighting the quantifiable advantages alkaline hydrolysis can offer over conventional flame incineration. Resomation UK has supplied the first alkaline hydrolysis system to be installed in the UK, at the Rowley Regis Crematorium in the West Midlands, due to become operational before the end of 2017.
Sullivan believes take-up is inhibited by legislation and regulations, attitudes in the funeral and cremation industry, and public awareness and understanding of alternatives to cremation and burial. “I have given dozens of seminars to the industry, and I always get positive feedback. Once the system installations expand, we will find a large percentage of the public will migrate to water since, our client feedback suggests, they see water as gentler than fire.”
Another possible inhibitor to take-up is that the technology to enable alkaline hydrolysis-based body disposal is heavyweight and constructed of durable, high-tensile materials, mostly steel. This means that while systems may be efficient and reliable, the need to innovate – by shortening cycle times, for example, so that more bodies can be processed during the course of a crematorium shift period – is less pressing. However, some simple modifications can improve ease-of-use, explains Sieber at Bio-Response Solutions.
“We patented an angled mode of operation [for the processing cylinder] that provides the benefits of a vertical system. A certain amount of water is needed in these machines in order to get a gentle flow of water moving. In a completely horizontal machine, this is a pretty high level of water. In our machine with the tilt, we are able to use less water twice, once for the process and again for the rinse cycle, which also results in energy savings because it’s less solution to heat.”
The concept of Promession was developed by biologist and ecologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who now heads Promessa Organic, the company that owns the technology. With Promession, the deceased is placed into the chamber of a purpose-designed apparatus called a Promator, and then subjected to cryogenic freezing using liquid nitrogen at around -200°C. This has the effect of ‘crystallising’ the body.
When this process is complete, the body is subjected to high-intensity vibration, which causes it to disintegrate into particles. These particles are then freeze-dried in a drying chamber.
The Promator’s next stage is separation of any metals or other non-degradable substances a deceased body may have contained – dental amalgam, pacemakers, orthopaedic implants; these are removed by magnetism or sieving. The remaining dried powder is then placed in a biodegradable casket interred in the top layers of soil, where aerobic bacteria decompose remains into ‘humus’ over about 6 to 12 months.
“It might, at first glance, look as if it is all about technical equipment, but Promessa is basically a biological project, and has little to do with death and dying, and everything to do with life and living organisms,” says Peter Mäsak, COO and biotechnologist at Promessa Organic. “The technical equipment is a tool for preparing the organic material for the soil.”
The Promession project has been under development for more than a decade, as Wiigh-Mäsak and her team have worked to attract funds and support for Promator prototypes to be built and tested. “Several pilot modules of the most innovative parts of the Promator has been manufactured, tested on full-sized pig [carcasses], and these tests have been looked upon as technical proof-of-concept,” says Peter Mäsak.
Interest in the concept continues to be shown by both the scientific establishment and public audiences Wiigh-Mäsak presents to. In 2014, it was reported that Promessa Organic had responded to an expression of interest from researchers attached to a Nasa Mars mission group looking into methods of body disposal that may be suitable for long space flights.
Another contender for the freeze-drying segment is UK-based IRTL (partnering with Air Products and Hosokawa Micron, and backed by Innovate UK), which has patented the ‘Cryomation’ branded process under development for prototyping and testing in 2018. Cryomation uses liquid nitrogen, freeze-drying (to -196°C) and (optional) ‘accelerated composting’ to produce deceased body remains. IRTL aims to adapt some machinery designs already in use in other industries.
“The project is essentially addressing engineering challenges presented by trying to create a fully-automated machine where a deceased body is put in at one end, and a biodegradable tube of ‘Cryomated’ remains emerges at the other end,” says Paul Smith, IRTL’s head of development. “The mechanical linking of the three component machines is not a significant challenge. Ensuring automatic removal of body implants and other foreign objects, without human handling, is a challenge.”
He adds: “Freezing and fragmentation processes are likely to take no longer than one hour, but again will be determined by the process efficiency that can be achieved through this current project. The freeze-drying process will take three to four hours – considerably longer than it takes to [flame] cremate a body.”
The freeze-drying stage of the process does represent a bit of a bottleneck in the Cryomation process, Smith says, but it will be possible to add more than one freeze-dryer to standard Cryomation units, known as Cryomators. Cryomators will be fully automated and built so the freeze-dryers can run 24 hours a day – the design specification as blueprinted includes remote monitoring of telemetric data.
The potential for bio-sciences to provide mechanisms for more ecologically aligned body disposal are being pursued by start-up Coeio with its branded Infinity Burial Suit and Infinity Burial Shroud products, part of its Infinity Burial project. These garments are made of biodegradable fabric that has been embroidered with a thread infused by a ‘bio mix’ based on mushroom mycelium, selected for its capacity to digest dead human tissue.
Priced at $1,500, the suit is accompanied by ‘alternative embalming fluid’, a liquid spore slurry, and Decompiculture Makeup, consisting of a dry mineral makeup and dried mushroom spores, and a separate liquid culture medium. Combining the two parts, and applying them to the body, activates the mushroom spores to develop and grow.
The deceased is dressed in a suit or shroud ready for an otherwise straightforward committal to the earth, but without a casket or coffin. After being covered by earth to surface level, in the time period that follows, natural elements cause the suit or shroud to disintegrate, and the mushroom mycelium to germinate. As the fabric is broken down, the mushrooms consume and are nourished by decomposition of the body, thus catalysing a process whereby the mushrooms neutralise bodily toxins, and serve eventually to transfer nutrients to other plant life.
“Mushrooms break down material by emitting enzymes, and have potential to consume a variety of food sources,” Coeio founder and director Jae Rhim Lee explains. “There are a million fungal spores, bacteria and viruses in the air, on every surface, and even in your own body, competing for nutrients. When alive, your body has a natural defence mechanism – its immune system – to fight off these microorganisms, [but] when dead, your body no longer has an active immune system, and will therefore become ‘food’ for any organism.”
Coeio’s work is ongoing, and the Infinity Suit has yet to be used in a committal, but the concept has generated worldwide interest, turning Lee into something of a cult figure.
The grimly-named Seattle-based Urban Death Project is not short on ambition, aiming to provide an alternative method to body disposal, and also to popularise a new interment ritual and approach to ‘death care’.
It is based on the broad principles of agricultural composting for body disposal, which it calls ‘Recomposition’.
Urban Death Project’s proposition is housed in a newly-designed Recomposition Centre. This three-storey facility houses a ‘core’ that would contain a specially developed compost-based ‘renewal system’. Unembalmed bodies are taken to a facility. After being wrapped in a shroud (staff would be on hand to help), mourners carry the body to a chamber at the top of the ‘core’, which is effectively a large inner space that contains the natural decomposition system in which Recomposition takes place.
During a ‘laying in’ ceremony, mourners place the deceased into a wood-chip-lined cavity at the top of the core, and cover it with more wood chips. Over the next few weeks, with help of aerobic decomposition and microbial activity, the body decomposes and moves further down the core. Microbes and beneficial bacteria break down proteins and carbon to create a new substance – an earthy soil that can be used to grow new life. The process is continuous: new bodies are laid into the system as finished compost is extracted at the base of the core.
The scientific basis for Urban Death Project is research done in livestock mortality composting by Cornell University, Washington State University, and the Pennsylvania Natural Resources Conservation Service (among others). Researchers at these institutions have found that composting is a safe, sustainable and effective way to re-purpose animal carcasses, says Katrina Spade, founder and director of Urban Death Project: “With a team of engineers, architects and soil scientists, we have taken research done around natural decomposition and fine-tuned it for the urban setting – and the human experience.”
Spade adds: “Our bodies are made up of calcium, nitrogen and phosphorous, and when coupled with high-carbon materials, such as wood chips and sawdust, our bodies turn into nutrient-rich soil. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither energy nor matter can be created nor destroyed... When we die, the decomposition process breaks down molecules in our bodies into smaller molecules and atoms, which are then incorporated into new molecules. Our physical bodies are [effectively] transformed into new substances.”
The project has been running a one-year pilot programme with its partners at Washington State University’s Department of Soil Sciences, and has said it is open to ‘donations of bodies’ during that programme. Spade hopes to build the first Urban Death Project facility in Seattle, then to develop a template that other communities can copy.