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.
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.
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.
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.