Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak has developed a new way to bury human bodies. First, freeze them with liquid nitrogen, then, use mechanical vibrations to shatter them into a million pieces.
Place the pieces in a vacuum chamber to evaporate out the water, a magnet removes metal from pacemakers and prosthetics, leaving an organic powder. Put the powder in a cornstarch coffin and bury it in a shallow grave. By burying bodies’ six-feet under, where there’s little oxygen, we allow them to rot, Susanne points out on the website of her burial company, Promessa Organic AB. Her method: “shallow burial in living soil that quickly converts us to mulch.”
Alternative burial methods have blossomed in the past few years, offering cheaper options that squish the body into less space, attractive in countries where cemeteries are filling up. A shortage of plots in Greece has driven the price of some to nearly a quarter of a million dollars—if you can’t pay upfront you can rent in three year increments—and in Singapore, with a land area smaller than most US counties, a national law which states bodies must be exhumed after 15 years to make room for new burials has led to the development of skyscraper like columbarium. While the cremation rate in the US has doubled in the past two decades, the process has long been seen as energy-inefficient and pollutive by some environmentalists. Alternative “green” burial methods read like science fiction.
Popular among the funeral industry in-crowd is a way of turning the body into syrup with industrial chemicals. The process, called alkaline hydrolysis, involves submerging a body in water in a pressurized and heated chamber then adding potassium hydroxide, a chemical known as “caustic potash” used to make soap and glass. Within hours, all that’s left is a thick brown syrup that can be dumped down the drain and some bones, which are crushed and returned to the family. The process is already used to destroy road kill carcasses and animals killed in medical experiments or deer culling operations. “Alkaline hydrolysis is a ‘game changer,’” Jeff Edwards, who runs a funeral home in Columbus, Ohio that uses the process, recently told an undertaker social media site. “Alkaline hydrolysis is a clean, green, natural process which…in a matter of hours achieves the same result that would take months or years with Mother Nature.”
A Scottish company is pushing a particular type of alkaline hydolisis called resomation. The body is placed in a silk bag then put in a metal cage and loaded into a “resomator”, a machine filled with water and potassium hydroxide and heated at pressure. What’s left is a “sterile liquid and bone ash”, says the company’s website. The bones are crushed and given to the family and the liquid can be put in “a memorial garden or forest.” The website claims the process reduces funeral emissions of greenhouse gases by one-third and that the resulting “sterile liquid” is “free from any traces of DNA.”
The desire of a disposal method to cover up tracks is common in literature. In Oscar Wilde’s, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, the deteriorating Dorian stabs to death his friend Basil then calls on an old acquaintance, a chemist, to destroy the evidence by dissolving the body with nitric acid. The technique makes good fiction but is also fact. John George Haigh, the infamous English “Acid Bath Murderer” of the 1940s killed at least half a dozen people. He then dissolved their bodies in concentrated sulfuric acid, forged papers and sold their possessions. Apparently, Haigh misunderstood British law, believing that if a victim’s body could not be found a murder conviction was impossible.
“There are many instances for which we humans do not want to accept given rules,” says Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak in an essay she has posted on Promessa’s website. “The fact that our time on earth is limited is one of them. To be sure, it’s nice to see life as an unlimited reality, and equally nice to live it as if it were so. But imagine if life actually is that way, that we are a part of everything living and the only limit is the time we live in this body. What happens after our days have come to an end?”