The traditional choices for body disposal are changing. The usual method is ground burial and economics has introduced the cremation method. Cemeteries have changed...no more mausoleums and many forbid upright monuments. Neither ground burial or cremation are Earth friendly. Cemeteries consume real estate and retard decomposition as well as the introduction of a concrete vault and casket [wood, steel] and cremation requires a huge consumption of energy to reduce the remains to ashes. Times are so bad that the state has to assume the responsibility since bodies are being abandoned or unclaimed. Now a Swedish group has initiated a program called "promession". Let's hope we don't go as far as the movie Soylent Green. I think in time our ethics of the deceased will change.
"What’s the greenest way to dispose of human remains?"
Squirrels, it turns out, compost quite nicely. Small birds? Sure. Happens in the woods every day, after all. But stuff a human body into a backyard bin, and within a day or so the neighbours will start to complain.
Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, a Swedish biologist specializing in soil production, explains: "When you die, you start smelling, because the oxygen does not reach inside the body." More specifically, an abundance of anaerobic bacteria quickly takes hold in such a large mass of tissue, resulting in the rank gases CSI techs use to sniff out "decomp." But after a decade spent investigating green options for dealing with dead bodies, Wiigh- Mäsak has finally figured out how to discreetly turn our earthly remains back into, well, earth.
The technique is called promession, the facilities that will do the job are called promatoriums, and the first one will open early next year in a converted crematorium in Jönköping, Sweden. Think of the operation as a kind of corpse disassembly line. The dearly departed are first supercooled in liquid nitrogen to about minus 196°C, then shattered into very small pieces on a vibration table. "We wanted to make the body unrecognizable without using any kind of an instrument that you would see in a kitchen or garage," she explains.
Next a vacuum is used to evaporate moisture while a metal separator, traditionally used by the food processing industry to remove stray foreign objects from meat products, shuffles aside fillings, crowns, titanium hips, and so on. (You can put that sandwich down now.) Finally, the vaguely pink crumbs are deposited in a large box made of corn or potato starch.
Surviving family members bury the box in shallow topsoil and plant a tree or shrub on top. With the exception of perhaps a few broken remnants of plastic pacemaker, in a matter of months nothing is left but memories and some lush greenery.
Assuming all goes well for Promessa in Jönköping, Wiigh-Mäsak expects partners will soon hang out their shingles in eleven countries, including Australia, South Africa, Germany, Korea, the UK, and even - pending regulatory hurdles and a still-in-the-works licensing agreement - Canada. But are we ready for this sort of thing?
Mortuary customs are among the most deeply entrenched in any culture, and in these parts the standard is deep burial. A mortician replaces the body’s blood with embalming chemicals, then arranges the preserved cadaver inside a casket made of metal or lumber - sometimes redwood or a tropical species like mahogany. Post-funeral, workers lower the casket into an underground vault six feet below ground level and backfill the grave. There, once microbes consume all available oxygen, the corpse putrefies into toxic skeletal sludge. Up top, constant mowing, fertilizing, and irrigation keep everything looking tidy.
Alternatively, the body is burned in a natural gas, propane, or oil-fired furnace, releasing a cloud of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, along with the aerosolized mercury from a lifetime's accumulation of dental fillings. An operator then pulverizes the bones left behind in a cremulator and presents these "ashes" to the bereaved in an urn.
Despite the undertaker's soothing assurances, neither option is especially respectful of either the body or the ecosystem, which is why "natural burial" groups have started popping up all over Canada and the world. These organizations advocate burying the dead in less intensively landscaped settings, closer to the surface, without benefit of embalmment, a casket, or even a headstone.
Mention promession to even this crowd, however, and you turn up the conservative take. "There may be a little bit of an 'ick' factor," fears Janet McCausland, executive director of the Toronto-based Natural Burial Association. "Natural burial is what we have been doing for millennia. People may be leery of this new fandangled technology."
Not so fast, counters Wiigh-Mäsak, who insists there is nothing particularly natural about burial, be it deep, shallow, chemical free, or otherwise. "In the beginning, a wild animal found you dead in nature and saw you as something edible," she explains. "They tore you apart and spread you around, and you became soil." She calls the promatorium her best effort to replace the animals, to prepare the body to become soil again without rotting.
For the younger generation, charged with the task of shepherding in a zero-waste society, compost might represent the ultimate final destination. Wiigh-Mäsak tells me that three women in their early twenties - one from Stockholm and the others visiting from the United States - came to see her last summer. "They hired a car and drove here for six hours, then they sat down to talk with us for two hours, then they drove another six hours back to Stockholm," she recalls.
"A colleague here said, 'What on earth could motivate these three girls to drive all that way just to sit down and talk about death?'" Wiigh-Mäsak didn’t miss a beat. "They weren't talking about death," she replied. "They were talking about the life that is possible afterwards."
"Death in the Recession: More Bodies Left Unburied"
August 7th, 2009
August 7th, 2009
Have economic times gotten so bad that some of the dead are going unburied? Several large counties across the country are experiencing unprecedented increases in the number of unclaimed deceased - not only the dead people who could not be identified, were indigent or were estranged from their family, but also apparently the growing number whose loved ones simply cannot afford to bury or cremate them. The phenomenon has increased costs for local governments, which have to dispose of the bodies.
"People were picking the bodies up last year," says Albert Samuels, chief investigator at the medical examiner's office in Wayne County, Mich., which includes Detroit. "Across the board, I'm finding the numbers are on the rise of either families who are not coming forward to claim bodies or they're signing releases saying they can't afford to bury someone, which taxes the county resources because then the county is responsible for burying these people."
The Los Angeles County coroner's office has seen a surge in the number of bodies not claimed by families for cremation or burial because of economic hardship, according to the Los Angeles Times. At the county coroner's office - which handles homicides and other suspicious deaths - 36% more cremations were done at taxpayers' expense in the past fiscal year compared with the previous year, 712 vs. 525, the paper reported.
The traditional tourist mecca of Las Vegas is facing similar challenges. The coroner's office in Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, saw a 22% increase in burials and cremations of unclaimed bodies this year, jumping from 741 to 904. When burial costs exceeded $1 million in the 2003-04 fiscal year, the agency turned to cremating the unclaimed unless it could be determined that burial was required because of religious or other beliefs. Each cremation costs $425 to $475. (Read a grim story of unearthed graves outside Chicago.)
Currently in Detroit, says Samuels, "I have approximately 65 to 70 bodies that are ready to be buried. Of those 65 or 70, I can tell you, are 35 or 40 where families have signed off on the bodies and they don't have the funds to bury them." It costs the state - or the county, if the state declines to help - $750 to bury an unclaimed decedent in a potter's grave in Western Wayne County.
That is still only a small fraction of what a traditional burial costs a family. (According to the most recent statistics from the National Funeral Directors Association, a regular adult funeral with burial, not including cemetery, monument or marker costs, averages $7,323.) Even so, the costs can quickly add up for a place like Wayne County. "Per capita, we're probably the fifth busiest medical examiner's office in the country," says Samuels. "We handle 13,000 death calls a year, and almost 3,600 bodies come through this system a year. So you're talking about 10 bodies a day, average."
Despite the considerable costs to his agency, Samuels is sympathetic to the plight people find themselves in. "They don't do this gleefully. These people are really heartbroken about the fact that they can't [bury their loved ones]. This is not just a distant relative - you have kids who can't bury their parents a lot of times, or siblings who can't bury each other."
Samuels, a retired police officer who has been with the medical examiner's office for 13 years, says he's never seen the situation this bad. "Some people just never had the money, but now we're getting people who at one time may have had the money to do this and they just can't. We have people losing their homes. People are finally feeling the economic strain completely. When people don't have jobs, you have people who can't eat, so burying someone is not high up on their list of what they have to do."
The dirge has the same tune in Vegas. P. Michael Murphy, Clark County coroner and president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, says he's seen a definite uptick in the number of indigent burials owing to financial hardship in the past several months. "Our investigators are seeing an increase in families who as part of the initial shock they're going through are verbalizing to us, 'What am I going to do? I can't pay the rent. My car is being repossessed,' or whatever. 'Our finances are at the very limit,'" says Murphy. "This problem used to be unique to just indigents who either had no family or were living on the street or homeless. We are now seeing folks expressing this concern who are recently unemployed or their house is in foreclosure, so it's not just what you would typically think of being an indigent burial."
"Let's not forget that this is not just a financial issue," Murphy adds. "The sense that I get from our investigators is that when people are emotionally strapped already [because of their finances], this is almost like the icing on the cake. It sort of breaks their back. It's hard enough when you're dealing with the death of a loved one. Then add in all the additional social pressures that go along with it, and it can make things seem insurmountable."
At a time of increased demand, medical examiners' and coroners' offices around the country, like many other county agencies, are experiencing severe budget cuts that may only worsen the problem, says Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, past president and chairman of the board of the National Association of Medical Examiners. Says Jentzen: "Every medical examiner I've talked to has had major cuts in financial support from the county that are going to start impacting service. I'm talking about cuts in the 20%-to-25% range across the nation." Jentzen worked as the chief medical examiner for Milwaukee County for 20 years before becoming a professor and director of forensic and autopsy services at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor last year.
Even in locations like Milwaukee County, where the number of unclaimed decedents is holding steady, the numbers will likely swell if $300,000 is cut from burial assistance, as proposed for 2010 by the county's department of health and human services. The program currently offers up to $1,500 in burial assistance to low-income families. "I would guess it would at least triple the number of unclaimed bodies if burial assistance is cut, because families are just not going to have the money to take care of them," says Karen Domagalski, operations manager for the Milwaukee County medical examiner's office, which handles about 60 unclaimed bodies a year.
As a result of current or potential budget cuts, Jentzen says, some county jurisdictions may need to cut back or stop providing burial services for the unclaimed. "If counties can't do it because they're strapped," says Jentzen, "then I don't know where they're going to go."
After all, when consciousness ceases, we do return to the elemental.