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.