New Ways to Do Post-Death

New Ways to Do Post-Death November 25, 2019

Bert posted the last article on funerals and alternatives to cremation. This sparked a memory of a fascinating article I read a few years ago in The New Humanist – well worth subscribing to – “The business of death in a growing world”. Things have probably moved on since 2017. here’s an excerpt:

Scientists and entrepreneurs have been investigating greener methods for disposing of bodies for years now, but it looks like they could be on the cusp of a breakthrough. The technology closest to fruition is one that uses water instead of fire to break down the body. Alkaline hydrolysis works by submerging the corpse in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide which is pressurised to 4.5 atmospheres and heated to 150°C for around one hour. The cadaver is broken down to a skeleton, and the bones are then pulverised. The whole process takes three to four hours and proponents claim it uses less energy than cremation, produces less CO2 and emits no mercury.

Sandy Sullivan, a Scottish biochemist who previously worked in the animal slaughter business, founded a company called Resomation Inc which manufactures alkaline hydrolysis machines. Three of Sandy’s machines are in operation, all of them in the United States. He says not only are his better for the environment, they’re also quieter than cremation. “If you’ve ever been in a crematorium and you stand in front of a crematory, it’s noisy, and burning is a fairly violent process.”

Another alternative being explored uses liquid nitrogen to essentially freeze-dry the body. A UK company called Incinerator Replacement Technology Ltd is testing a process they call Cryomation. Their method uses liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees to cause the body to become brittle, then uses pressure to fragment the corpse into smaller particles. This one is yet to be tested on humans but it has been tested on pigs (pigs are always used to test disposal methods; they have similar levels of hair, skin structure, body mass, and fat-to-muscle ratio). Paul Smith, Head of Development at Cryomation, is confident they’ll move to testing on human cadavers next year.

These alternatives to cremation are technically legal in the UK, as they’ve never been made illegal. The government hasn’t passed primary legislation that gives them the power to regulate, which means there is no regulation. Without that it’s unlikely the funeral sector will embrace the new methods. In Scotland, though, that is changing. The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016, and a change to the law around death certification in 2015, means Scotland can regulate for new technologies. Sullivan says they’re ready to do so. He expects to see alkaline hydrolysis in Scotland very soon.

Burial is also on the cusp of transformation. Around 25 per cent of people choose burial, and based on that rate the Office for National Statistics projects 680,000 people will want to be buried from 2015 to 2020. But in 2013, a BBC survey of local authorities revealed that in 20 years half the cemeteries in the UK would be full.

People choose burial for many reasons; the main religious groups choosing it are Muslims, Orthodox Jews and many Catholics (although the Catholic Church is not opposed to cremation). To cater for those wanting burial, the funeral sector needs to either obtain more land or fit more bodies into existing cemeteries.

Tim Morris thinks we should reuse the graves we already have. The chief executive of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management is two years off retirement and has worked in the death sector almost his entire career. With a cockney accent and an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things funereal, Morris explains that reusing graves means digging up existing human remains, burying them deeper into the ground and putting another coffin on top. The City of London Cemetery has started doing it and others – such as Southwark Council – may follow suit. If a grave is over 75 years old letters are sent to the owner at the last known address, notices are put up at the cemetery and ads in local newspapers. If anyone comes forward they can retain the rights. If not the graves are given over to reuse. “I think probably out of 2,000 letters that went out you might get two replies.” He says the shortage is pushing up the cost of burial, and reuse makes better use of the land: “There’s a shortage of space for the living, let alone the dead.”

At the moment, only cemeteries run by London’s local authorities are legally allowed to do this. The law around burial is complex as different laws apply to different sites. Some burial grounds – including local authority grounds and, to a lesser extent, Church of England churchyards – must abide by detailed statutes. Other burial grounds were established by acts of Parliament and have less regulation. Private burial grounds – some religious ones, and private woodland and natural burial sites – are the least regulated.

In 2004, the government carried out a consultation into the provision and maintenance of burial grounds because of the growing shortage. They concluded that the sector did not need a new Burial Bill to cover all types of grounds, and could instead deal with the problem using existing legislation. But many, including Morris, believe the sector does need a new Bill, and are campaigning for it.

The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016 paves the way for Scotland to reuse graves and Morris thinks the rest of the UK should follow suit: “We should have one piece of legislation for all operators – private, public, and religious.” The Church of England would still operate under canon law, Morris explains, but every other denomination of cemetery could come under one piece of legislation, along with local authorities and private companies.

In light of changes across the sector, the Wellcome Trust has funded a research group called the Corpse Project. Sophie Churchill is leading their investigation into the best ways of dealing with the body after death for people and the planet. She thinks there is dissatisfaction with how things are done, and new options should be explored. She’s interested in not only the least harmful ways to dispose of corpses, but also if they can be put to positive use.

The UK is a world leader in green burial, which involves un-embalmed corpses buried in clothing made of natural fibres in biodegradable coffins, usually in woodland. With a background in forestry, Churchill understands woodland and she thinks green burial needs to be looked at more closely: “It’s been around for quite a long time and I think it’s probably time to do a little bit more probing. We should look at the pros and cons of it and if it can be a sustainable option for a lot more people.”

Churchill also thinks there’s scope to go further. Human cadavers can provide 17 of the 18 elements needed for plant growth, so the Corpse Project is looking into whether burying bodies at a shallow level could be beneficial to plants and the animals that feed on them. “You could have animals graze on top and then you’ve got double land use,” says Churchill.

***

Dealing with the dead is not a UK-only problem, of course. In the US, one company has developed a wearable suit that uses mushroom spores to help the body decompose. Another wants to construct a three-storey building with a core in which a pile of dead bodies wrapped in linen are placed with high-carbon materials, eventually decomposing to become soil. According to the BBC, the Israeli government has approved the building of multi-storey underground burial tunnels. In Singapore one private company stores 50,000 urns that owners can retrieve automatically with an electronic card.

I wonder what the future holds!


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