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Monday, April 5, 2010

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

In the majority of cremations, no mourners are present and the memorial service is separate.  We don't witness how it happens. Someone else takes care of it.  Because of this lack of involvement, could that change how society chooses disposal?  Perhaps the most bizarre chapter in the book "Stiff" by Mary Roach describes the alternatives to burials and cremations.  Here are a few to think about.

In Farmington Hills, Michigan, there is a funeral home owner who plans on one day using a new process called "water reduction."  (In the world of animal services, it is referred to as "tissue digestion.")  There are technical descriptions of water reduction on the Internet, but in simple terms, "it's a pressure cooker with Drano." The lye in the mixture digests the body, and what is left is two or three percent of the original body weight.  "All that remains is a pile of decollagenated bones that can crumble in one's fingers." Collagen is like a glue between the bone cells, so when this "glue" is gone, the bone that is left is no longer connected.  These bone remnants can be scattered or placed in a "bone box," a sort of mini-coffin that can be stored in a crypt or buried.

Susanne Wiigh-Masak lives on the tiny island of Lyrön in Sweden and has another idea.  She has founded a company called Promessa, which is preparing to offer organic composting in the near future as a viable choice.

Here is how it is proposed to work: A person's body "will be lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen and frozen.  From here he will progress to the second chamber, where either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibration will be used to break his easily shattered self into small pieces, more or less the size of ground chuck.  The pieces, still frozen, will then be freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub, either in a churchyard memorial park or in the family's yard." (Bacteria is added to help the process along.)  Before jumping to the conclusion that her idea is nonsense, I need to tell you that King Carl Gustav and the Church of Sweden are in her corner, rooting for her. (Pun intended!)

Her company has made a small video. 

They also have an illustrated description.

Wiigh-Masak is opposed to animals being disposed of in this manner, because "she realizes the importance of keeping respectful disposition distinct from waste disposal, of addressing the family's need for a dignified end."  However, her test grave consists of a cow that is the equivalent size of a 150-lb. cadaver.  She placed the powder into a cornstarch box, and the box in a shallow grave.  (The shallow grave is only fourteen inches deep to allow the compost to get the oxygen needed.) Later she will return to dig it up to make sure the container has disintegrated and the contents are doing as is expected.

The world is a big place with many different cultures and traditions, many different ways of taking care of the dead which are not covered here.  Of the choices of disposal talked about in the book - burial, cremation, anatomical gifting (donation to science),  water reduction, and organic composting - burial is still my first choice.

Now you have heard something interesting.

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