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The progression of burial and cremation alternatives, by Antal Polony

November 4, 2012
A grave in Eloise Woods Community Natural Burial Park, by Larry D. Moore

“Death has proven a difficult subject to bring up to the American public.”

Are you aware of green burial options?  Antal introduces us to two today: promession and resomation.  – editor

Today, our after-death disposition choices in the U.S. are almost exclusively limited to cremation and burial.

When most people think of burial, they think of full-casket funerals in a conventional cemetery with an embalmed body, suits, flower wreaths, and a gravestone. All of this can be expensive and environmentally unsound.

Cremation, often a far more cost-effective choice, is more popular today than it has ever been before, accounting for about 40% of dispositions nation-wide. In the last few years, perhaps in reaction to the exorbitant costs of conventional funerals, as well as an increasing public awareness of the environmental impact of death, there has been a small but noticeable shift to more affordable, less ecologically impactful processes, such as green burial, and home funerals.

Furthermore, two novel forms of disposition are on the cusp of introduction to the wider market, and, if successful, may change the way we think about burial altogether.

Promession

In Sweden, a biologist and engineer named Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak has developed a procedure called “promession,” where a persons’ remains are treated with liquid nitrogen, crystallized, and then subjected to a rapid mechanical vibration that breaks the body down into small particles.

The particle remains are freeze dried to remove any moisture, and then filtered of solid metals or materials that may have been in the body, leaving behind an organic powder.

According to Promessa, the environmental impact of promession is negligible, as the remains are compostable and environmentally friendly and the “promator” utilizes  renewable energy and industrial byproduct materials. Furthermore, promession provides the cremation industry an efficient means to eliminate mercury and particulate emissions, a common health and environmental concern in cremation.

Resomation

Meanwhile, in August a long-established Florida establishment called Matthews Cremation began to offer a procedure termed “resomation,” or, more scientifically, alkaline hydrolysis, a process that has been employed by farmers and medical schools for years. A body is entered into a pressurized stainless steel vault, where it is submerged in hydrochloric acid and rendered into liquid form.

Like promession, this process uses a relatively small amount of carbon dioxide, and efficiently filters foreign metals and particles from the remains product. Also like promession, it is completely unprecedented in current after-death care.

Prospects for the future

But, however practical promession and resomation are, they are likely to expect a slow take-off. Promessa has received a lot of international praise, but though it has been in concept since 2001, there are still no functioning promatoria, and licensing agreements currently signed only in South Korea, South Africa, and the U.K. Resomation too has received a fair amount of media attention, sometimes unfortunately tinged with a sense of muted squeamishness or humor. Securing resomation licensing agreements has proven problematic — the process is only legally authorized for human remains in seven U.S. states.

Of course, neither of these processes have been around long enough for us to know their true impact.

As expensive and problematic as conventional funeral rites can be, they are still thoroughly ingrained in our cultural consciousness. Death has proven a difficult subject to bring up to the American public, perhaps compounding the difficulties inherent when introducing new products in any consumer-choice field. While many may agree that promession is appealing in theory, and resomation is environmentally sound, in practice, when telling a wider family and a large circle of friends their choice for a loved one’s after-death disposition, the instinct to opt for a more ordinary form of burial may prove unfortunately durable, especially if no one has discussed the decision beforehand.

At the same time, cremation was met with a great deal of resistance itself upon its introduction a hundred years ago.

And, practically speaking, is there really any reason to prefer reducing a person’s remains to ash as opposed to bioorganic liquid? And one of promession’s primary selling points is its real elegance and environmental sustainability.

Maybe we all just need to get used to it.

This article was first published at SevenPonds.com.

The author

Antal Polony:  For better or worse, I am a writer trying to figure out the world, do right by humanity and make his own way here in Oakland, CA, my hometown and frequent influence. Last year I completed my first novel, Inheritance, which I like to describe as a political thriller/family drama. Seems at this point that it’s not going to get published, but I received more than enough encouragement along the way not to take the outcome personally. I’m probably well past the point of no return where I could have decided whether or not I wanted to be a writer — then again, I’ve been writing since I was eight years old, right around the time I first started saying that I wanted to be a writer. So, maybe I never had a say in the matter, and all else was merely a process of elimination. Any how, I’m here now, at the beginning of what will surely be a long and terrible journey. Wish me luck.

Find me at my website: AntalPolony.com

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2012 6:57 am

    Thanks for this Antal. This is a subject that has preoccupied me for some time. I very much hope that promession becomes available in the US in my lifetime, but I suspect that the US will be the last country to embrace it. I have always found our embalming/viewing rituals and the goal of preserving the body in a hermetically sealed casket to be disturbing. These practices are no doubt bound up with Christian notions of resurrection. Before I became more ecologically aware, I wished for a full on Viking-style funeral pyre. I settled for cremation, since at least you get to decide what to do with the ashes. The problem of course is the carbon released into the atmosphere by the process.

  2. November 4, 2012 1:23 pm

    Thank you for bringing up this all too often spurned subject. Filled with good intentions, I have long wanted to write a piece about this subject over at NUP, but alas, the time escapes me. This is a discussion everyone really needs to have long in advance of their own death — I tend to think if we humans had this discourse more frequently, candidly & pragmatically, we might have already embraced, or at least might be closer to utilizing more of these alternatives. I think it is an important one for the pagan & naturalist communities to have dialogue about more publicly as well.

    My personal favourite alternative is the proposition put forth by researcher & artist Jae Rhim Lee: the Infinity Burial Suit. This two-part system is basically a burial dressing infused with fungal spores paired with an injection to the body of “decompiculture” spores. More about the project is here: http://infinityburialproject.com/burial-suit. She has a TED Talk you can see also (found on website home page). One of my favourite aspects of her efforts is her desire to engage people in “difficult dialogues.” But, I confess, as an animist & mycophile, I am also fundamentally drawn to being placed into the able ‘hands’ of my fungal friends.

    Again, I applaud your willingness to bring forth the subject,. Hopefully we will see more of this kind of discussion in the future.

    • November 5, 2012 5:01 am

      >Jae Rhim Lee: the Infinity Burial Suit

      Just watched her TED talk. That is amazing. So glad you brought it up!

  3. November 8, 2012 10:04 am

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

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