Green Graves?

green-gravesBy John Glave

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.

This article was originally published in the The Walrus, July/August 2009 under the title Decomposting Bodies.


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10 Responses to Green Graves?

  1. Madan Gopal das

    Nasty!
    Though India’s seemingly more simple disposal of bodies through cremation appears like the greenest alternative out there, I have heard that the massive amounts of wood used in massive amounts of riverside cremations is a pollution and deforestation problem there. Very interesting to contemplate how even rituals in death may require reconsideration and adaptation.

  2. I remember several years ago I was talking with my father about Jains and their customs of leaving the dead bodies for the vultures to eat. I was thinking it was disgusting but my father said: “Personaly I would prefer my body to be used by birds in a few days that to rotten for months with worms in it”. So I guess some people may like idea of composting their bodies. For me it sounds little bit shocking.

    It also surprised me to hear that enbalmment of the body or metal caskets are so popular.. I thought only ancient Egyptians had such customs.

  3. This reminds me of a sort of related issue. I read an article some time ago in the New York Times about the huge amount of black carbon pollution caused by cow dung fires in India, and this project to replace stoves with more environmentally friendly ones, lower soot producing stoves. The article claimed cooking stoves in India and Africa are responsible for 18% of the world’s global warming. I was was kind of dissappointed as I had always considered cow dung a first class fuel, and it seemed somewhat unfair to target these villagers who must be producing a tiny fraction of the pollution produced in industrialized areas and countries. The link is

    • My father with his distaste for elaborate rituals wants his body to be disposed of in the most environmental friendly way and all his organs be used for others.

      Obviously it will be hard for me to take this stand as giving organs for others after death is not recommended to devotees and elaborate rituals are also conducted at death.

      • The issue of organ donations is not so clear, especially if the devotee considers that he or perhaps his children may need one someday. How can we preach that we accept blood transfusions and organ transplants but its against our teachings to donate blood or organs?

        Here’s what Swami had to say about this.

        “The idea of dissecting and dismembering a body that has been completely dedicated to Krsna’s service in order to donate its organs may be somewhat unsettling to most devotees, and rightly so. Yet should a Vaisnava out of compassion for people in general choose to donate his or her organs, it would be hard to argue against such an act of mercy. Out of compassion, Vasudeva, the uttama bhagavata leper, allowed worms to feed on his body, and if they fell off, he would pick them up and put them back on. Who can argue with this?”

        From Sanga: Transplants and Transfusions
        http://www.swami.org/pages/sanga/2006/2006_7.php

  4. The body of a great devotee is of course put into samadhi and memorialized, but otherwise I think that ‘Green Graves’ as related in the article is an absolutely wonderful idea.

    How do I sign up?

  5. It’s probably more environmentally friendly than cremation, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking it’s a completely pollution-free solution. The liquid nitrogen must be condensed from the air which requires lots of energy (electricity) to run the compressors to do so. So this is a “lesser of the evils” idea. Direct burial (no casket) would be far greener than either option.

  6. It is interesting to consider to what extent cremations and burials were pragmatic and thought to be environmentally sound when first employed. Often ancient religious practices were originally also tied to very pragmatic concerns, and as times change and we lose sight of their pragmatic side that is no longer apparent they end up looking absurd or harmful.

    I believe that the Hindus’ preference for cremation was to an extent adopted in consideration of environmental issues—in the least better use of land as opposed to burials. Christian Europe on the other hand developed a theology that required keeping dead bodies in tact in waiting for their resurrection.

    I heard that President Bush refused to visit Gandhi’s grave when touring India because his body had been cremated. I guess Christians think cremation is a sin (?). Would orthodox Hindus think that a green burial by this article’s standards is offensive or less than spiritually correct?

  7. American Indians figured it out long ago, placing their dead on high platforms to be eaten by birds and bones broken down by weather. Giving up dead bodies to crocodiles and fish in the rivers is pretty green as well. Of course given the density of population today these options may not be practical. How practical is the liquid nitrogen/composting option? Time will tell.

    Earth is for the living and so – in a way – are the cemeteries, as they help us remember the departed. But if you want a clean and green disposal of the bodies industrial furnaces are the best. Sure, human body makes for a poor fuel (unless that body is fat) but it still fuel. The harmful emissions are captured using the furnace air scrubbers, unlike in regular cremation. no extra fuel is needed as well. I used to work for a company operating a waste-to-energy incinerator, you would be amzed what can be used as a fuel – it is definitely a very solid technology.. but in that case the yuck-factor may be to high even for the die-hard tree huggers.

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