Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Death and Duhamel

A scheme to allow Jersey people to have their bodies freeze dried upon death has been proposed by the island's environment minister. Deputy Rob Duhamel said the initiative would be more environmentally friendly than cremation or burial. The process involves freezing a corpse with liquid nitrogen, then vibrating it to reduce the body to powder. Deputy Duhamel said he would ask the States to legalise the scheme, which would allow for burial in woodland. He believes that this would be possible, as the powdered body would eventually turn to soil. "I think it's absolutely fantastic and represents the best way out of all the methods of being buried," he said. "A lot more people are wanting a woodland burial as opposed to a cemetery." Woodland burials are currently not allowed in Jersey, due to fears of contamination from metal contained in people's bodies. Mr Duhamel said that any metal would be removed at the end of the process. Freezing would also stop any emissions of noxious fumes in cremation. (1) (BBC News).

Strange as it may seem, this isn't as new or as mad an idea as it first appears, and councils across the UK are looking into the possibilities of this method. So Deputy Duhamel is actually looking at what could be a cutting edge method of disposing of the dead, and is not quite ready to be taken away by the men  in white coats. It has been tried already on animals. In 1997, a Swedish environmental biologist first mooted the idea for human beings, having made preliminary tests on cows and pigs:

"Wiigh-Masak, a consultant in Sweden, says this type of green burial requires only a few steps: Freeze and then immerse the body in liquid nitrogen to dry it, let it crumble into an odorless, hygienic, fine powder, then slip it into a biodegradable coffin. Within a few months, the coffin and remains are compost. 'This is an ethical way of giving back to nature, and of understanding that death is a possibility for new life,' Wiigh-Masak says." (2)

There was a good deal of resistance to cremation by religious groups in the United Kingdom, when that was first mooted, and the idea of cremation was considered the preserve of eccentrics, odd people who had strange ideas about the human body. It was perhaps fitting therefore that it was notably the self-proclaimed druid, Dr William Price, who attempted to cremate his dead son, and then fought a court case in  the UK, and won it for the right to cremate; he paved the way for crematoriums to be built, and a fundamental change in practice to become ever more mainstream. His story, eccentric and wonderful, is told here:


Nowadays, nothing is thought of it; since 1963, even the Catholic Church became more open to cremation, and while, prior to 1997, cremations had to take place after the funeral Mass (so the body could be present during the rite), the position nowadays has changed, and the Vatican has granted permission to allow funeral Masses with the presence of the ashes.

The freeze drying of a human being has actually taken place in 1999, by Harold Pavett:

"Although it's an expensive and lengthy technique - costing as much as $50,000 - Harold Pavett says a body can be saved for friends, family and future generations to see. He has only done it once, but Pavett sees his method as an alternative to traditional mortuary offerings. And more than anything, he invented his freeze-dryer for the sake of science. Lyophilization, or the suspension and removal of water molecules, allows total preservation without decay or cremation, Pavett said. It's takes six to nine months to preserve a body, depending on the dead person's weight. Lambert Hultz is the only person to have it done by Pavett. His 80-year-old body was freeze-dried after his death Oct. 28, 1994. Pavett has pictures of Hultz taken two years later that show a well-preserved body in a casket. "He devoted himself for the cause, for the sake of science," Pavett said, adding Hultz had a background in nuclear science. When he went into the freeze-drying chamber, Hultz weighed 165 pounds. He came out about half that weight."(3)

However this was not using liquid nitrogen, but instead a chamber with a temperature inside of minus 10 degrees. The modern method, which is called "Promession" was invented by was invented by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak in 1997, who also applied for a patent for the process in 35 countries.

She established the company Promessa Organic, inspired by the Italian word promessa meaning oath or truth, because she has the firm belief that a body can be laid to rest in a dignified manner as a valuable contribution to the living earth. She notes that ecological burial is included as a lawful and accepted burial alternative in the Church of Sweden's official burial guide.

The "Daily Undertaker" blog notes:

"In South Korea, laws have been passed to allow for this form of disposition, and Promession has been embraced by the Christian Church there. Sweden is also getting closer to allowing Promession as an option. Leaders of many religious denominations have determined that Promession is consistent with the tenets of their faith." (7)

And Moira McQueen, director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and a theology professor at St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto sees no problems with the concept: "It's a lot like cremation, and the Roman Catholic Church doesn't have a problem with that any more. Off the top of my head, I'd say there's no reason it'd be against human dignity."

The process has the following five stages:

1. The body is frozen by immersion in liquid nitrogen, which makes it brittle.
2. The frozen remains are shattered by vibration.
3. The remains are then subjected to a vacuum so that the ice sublimes and the powder becomes dry, and weighs 50% to 70% less than the original body.
4. Any metals (e.g., tooth amalgam, artificial hips, etc.) are removed, either with a magnetic process or sieving.
5 The dry powder is placed in a biodegradable casket which is interred in the top layers of soil, where aerobic bacteria decompose the remains into humus, or compost, in as soon as 12 months (4)

The first Promession facility opened at the end of 2011 and additional facilities are planned to follow in the UK and South Korea.

It is the most ecologically friendly method of disposing of the body:

"Traditional methods of burial are not environmentally friendly: Toxic embalming fluids, as well as the copper or lead in expensive caskets, can leak into the ground and water supply. According to the Rainforest Action Network, approximately three hundred thousand wooden caskets are made in the United States each year, using as many as 50 million board feet of wood. And traditional cemeteries often require the use of lawn mowers, fertilizers, and herbicides."

"Crematoria release harmful chemicals into the atmosphere-including carcinogenic hydrocarbons from coffins and mercury vapor from dental fillings. The typical body in a crematorium burns at about 1600  degrees Fahrenheit for three to five hours. A 1990 Swiss study by the Electric Power Research Institute found that mercury vapor during cremation of a person with the average number of amalgam  fillings was toxic enough to poison the fish in five 10-acre lakes. A 1999 report from San Francisco's Public Works Department found that crematoria were the third-highest contributor of mercury in the  region. Cremation turns the body from an organic to an inorganic form. Ashes are not food for living soil." (5)

Unfortunately, no figures are available that I've been able to find on the costs of the proposed freeze dry alternative. How much electricity is used freezing yourself and the nitrogen? How much electricity is used when gently bombarding the corpse with sound waves? How does the carbon footprint compare with traditional methods? Their website states only that "Producing liquid nitrogen is still relatively costly. This, however, is offset by other factors when liquid nitrogen is used to replace environmentally hazardous alternatives, such as fossil fuels."  That doesn't really answer the questions.

Other wonderful alternatives are coming onto the market, mainly in the land of the weird and wacky, the United States. But who knows? Today's strange method of disposing of the body may be as commonplace as cremation is today. Here are a few from "Live Science" (6):


Anderson-McQueen funeral home in St. Petersburg, Fla., is currently the only place in the United States where patrons can opt to have their tissues dissolved as an alternative to traditional cremation. The process, called resomation or "bio-cremation," uses heated water and potassium hydroxide to liquefy the body, leaving only bones behind. The bones are then pulverized, much as in regular cremation, and the bone fragments are returned to the family.

Natural Burial

Not so much a new invention as a return to old ways, natural burials are interments that take place without embalming and without the concrete vaults that line graves in most modern cemeteries. Bodies are wrapped in a shroud or placed in a biodegradable casket, the idea being that they will decompose naturally.

Eternal Reefs

For those who prefer to nourish a more aquatic environment after death, there's also the Eternal Reef option. Georgia-based Eternal Reefs creates artificial reef material out of a mixture of concrete and human cremains (the crushed bone left over from cremations). These heavy concrete orbs are then placed in areas where reefs need restoration, attracting fish and other organisms that turn the remains into an undersea habitat.


Cryonics is the process of freezing a person's body in the hopes that later medical science will make it possible to revive them, personality and memory intact. Despite the numerous barriers to this, including the toxicity of chemicals used in an attempt to prevent damage to cells from freezing, advocates have promoted cryonics since the late '60s. According to the Cryonics Institute, there were just over 200 people in cryonics storage in the U.S. as of August 2011. Prices vary depending on the procedure, preservation company and payment plan, but can range as high as $200,000 for whole-body preservation. Cost-cutters can have a head-only preservation for around $80,000.

Space Burial

If cryonics sounds too expensive, but you'd still like the afterlife to smack of sci-fi, you can always get some of your ashes shot into space. Your cremated remains will hitch a ride on a rocket already headed for the stars, a journey that is more symbolic than practical: Because of the high cost of spaceflight, only 1 to 7 grams (0.04 to 0.25 ounces) of remains are launched. According to Celetis Memorial Spaceflights, a company that offers the postmortem flights, a low-orbit journey that lets your cremains experience zero gravity before returning to Earth starts at $995. A chance to orbit Earth and eventually burn up in the atmosphere runs around $3,000. Dedicated space-lovers can have themselves launched to the moon or into deep space for $10,000 and $12,500, respectively.


It's not just for ancient Egyptians anymore. A religious organization called Summum, founded in 1975, offers mummification services to both people and pets. Before his death in 2008, Summum's founder Corky Ra told CBS News that at least 1,400 people had signed up for eventual mummification. Summum's representatives are currently not granting media requests, but Ra told CBS that the price of human mummification starts at $63,000. Like believers in cryonics, Ra and those like him hope that their preserved DNA will enable future scientists to clone them and give them (or at least their genes) a second shot at life. Ra put his money where his mouth was: After he died, he was mummified and is now encased in bronze in Summum's pyramid in Salt Lake City, Utah.


Much like mummification, plastination involves preserving the body in a semi-recognizable form. Invented by anatomist Gunther von Hagens, plastination is used in medical schools and anatomy labs to preserve organ specimens for education. But von Hagens has taken the process one step further, creating exhibits of plastinated bodies posed as if frozen in the midst of their everyday activities. According to the Institute for Plastination, thousands have signed up to donate their bodies for education and display.


The newest comer on the eco-burial stage is a process called Promession, or put more plainly, freeze-drying. Invented by Swedish marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak, the process involves immersing the corpse in liquid nitrogen, which makes it very brittle. Vibrations shake the body apart and the water is evaporated away in a special vacuum chamber. Next, a separator filters out any mercury fillings or surgical implants, and the powdered remains are laid to rest in a shallow grave.

(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-jersey-21306929
(2) http://www.naturalburials.co.nz/index.php?page=otherMedia3
(3) http://tucsoncitizen.com/morgue2/1999/11/12/107608-costly-after-death-option-freeze-dry-yourself/
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Promession
(5) http://www.naturalburials.co.nz/index.php?page=otherMedia3
(6) http://www.livescience.com/15980-death-8-burial-alternatives.html
(7) http://www.dailyundertaker.com/2008/09/promession-return-to-living-soil.html  


James said...

You are incorrect in asserting that no-one thinks anything of cremation. Orthodox churches are very firm in the view that the only acceptable form of disposal is burial; so are people of the Bahai faith.

You might also consider that there are places - France is one - where even an urn of ashes is considered to be a body, and there are quite stringent controls on what you can and cannot do with it. (This is something I came up against not that long ago when my father died).

TonyTheProf said...

According to the law, Orthodox Greeks can choose cremation as long as they have stated this in writing before their death or their immediate relatives wish it.

"A pre-condition for the cremation is the clear, unequivocal statement of the deceased, or their relatives," that they wish to be cremated, the law said.

In a country where more than 95 percent of the population is Orthodox, the families of people who did not wish to be buried spend thousands of euros transporting them to neighboring Bulgaria for cremation.

For decades the Greek Orthodox Church had strongly opposed cremation, saying the body is God's creation and cannot be burned. But the church says it does not plan to protest the decision.

"The church does not oppose and has no right to oppose the cremation of the dead for those of other religions or other Christian denominations," said a spokesman for the Church of Greece, Charis Konidaris.

"For the Orthodox people, though, it recommends burial as the only way for the decomposition of the deceased human body, according to its long traditions," he said.

TonyTheProf said...


There are some restrictions in Jersey. You cannot scatter ashes in a cemetery, for instance.

James said...

Interesting what you say about Bulgaria: of course, we had the same in Jersey from about 1932-3 up to 1960, where those who wanted cremation went to Le Foulon in Guernsey. Croad's alone must have sent a couple of hundred people (though it was much more common after the war).

TonyTheProf said...

One of the oddest cases I came across was with regard to an individuals ashes, sent to the Parsonage at St Aubin, with a request to bury them in the grounds of St Aubin's Church.

They sat in the curate's study for months in an urn in a cardboard box, until an Ecclesiastical Court could grant permission for burial of ashes to take place there.

James said...

French rules say that ashes must be stored in a designated facility - burial at home, in a field etc is illegal. You can have them interred at a crematorium or in your local cemetery - but not AFAIK scattered.

Cremation is not common in France either: part of that is logistics (the nearest crematorium to my mother's house is on the outskirts of Bordeaux, 50 miles away).

Nick Palmer said...

I don't know enough here but the emissions of mercury vapour from the Westmount crematorium need considering. As far as I know it was "only" about 8 years ago that rules were brought in to reduce emissions on the mainland by installing filters by 2012. Did procrastinating Jersey do something similar?

The fumes from the crematorium, referenced against prevailing winds, suggest that the highest impacts of any mercury vapour may be felt from Cheapside to Queen's road roundabout in WNW'lys - SW'lys and First Tower in NE'lys although the elevation change (Westmount is, of course, high up) might help a fair bit to "disperse" the vapour.

I wonder if one of those things they don't tell you about the cremation process is that they remove amalgam filled teeth during preparation of the body? In conventional burials they drain all blood and replace it with dyed pink formalin, not to mention other intrusive procedures.