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The Dead and their Deeds; and some greener ways to go

I am often troubled whenever I see smoke as my mind shouts out 'air pollution' and 'global warming' - more so since the IPCC has issued the 'CODE RED' alert for humanity. However, the smoke plumes (be it from stubble burning or burning one's trash in the backyard or vehicular exhausts or factory chimneys or cremations) are here to stay unless we actively do something about it. Talking about cremations, can we erase the visuals of mass cremations last year (when the coronavirus cases were surging), and cities either running out of cremation spaces, or woods for the funeral pyre, or burial grounds? Considering the deluge of deaths that followed worldwide due to the pandemic in addition to death due to other causes, that's a huge amount of bodies (solid wastes) to dispose of. However, meaning no disrespect to any religion and their age-old traditions and customs, none of the methods (cremation or burial) are environment friendly.

As with all living beings, we are organic i.e. the basic part of our constitution is made of carbon and hydrogen; thus, burning human bodies emit carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). According to a Reuter's article:

A standard cremation spews into the air about 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas blamed for global warming -- along with other pollutants like dioxins and mercury vapor if the deceased had silver tooth fillings.
On top of that, each cremation guzzles as much energy, in the form of natural gas and electricity, as a 500-mile (800 kilometers) car trip.

Burial also has its consequences; as the body and coffin start to decompose, the embalming fluid, and the toxins from any drug the person may have taken (while alive) seep into the ground. The scarcity of burial space (remember the Catacombs of Paris, built in the 18th century, to tackle the city's overflowing cemeteries?) and the exorbitant prices of burial spaces in urban areas are also a matter of concern.

While these thoughts often keep occupying my mind on and off (as all of you know by now that I have a wandering mind), I thought of reading the book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (published in 2003), which has been sitting idle in my kindle since 2017. (Strange as it may seem, many a time I don't immediately read a book after purchasing it.)

This nonfiction book is a humorous take on the lives of human cadavers (mostly of those who have willed their bodies for science or the unclaimed dead) in incredible detail, without being disrespectful. The first passage (quoted below) itself hooked me to the book.

The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying down on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you.

The book, all of 12 chapters, talks about the various ways human cadavers contribute to research and analysis, and also save lives, viz.: in anatomical studies, in practicing operations, in forensic research (majorly studying the stages of body decomposition with time), in automobile crash tests (in testing the physical limits of the human body), in studying injury patterns from flight accidents/explosions, in testing the fatality and studying the effects of different weapons (mines/guns/rifles) on the human body, in organ donation, in human cannibalism. Since 19 years have passed since the publication of the book, new developments in medicine and technology have further produced many advancements in the above-mentioned studies, still, it's a good book to start with in understanding the lives of cadavers.

Because of changes that have come about as a result of cadaver studies, it’s now possible to survive a head-on crash into a wall at 60 mph. In a 1995 Journal of Trauma article entitled "Humanitarian Benefits of Cadaver Research on Injury Prevention,” Albert King calculated that vehicle safety improvements that have come about as a result of cadaver research have saved an estimated 8,500 lives each year since 1987.

What further piqued my interest to prod beyond the book were the greener or eco-friendly funeral methods mentioned in the book, viz., Promession, Aquamation, and Plastination.


Promession is a form of body disposal in which the body is first frozen in liquid nitrogen (-196 deg) thus making it very brittle (remember the villain T-1000 in the movie Terminator 2 who was fragmented into pieces when liquid nitrogen was poured over it only to rise again not before giving Schwarzenegger the time to escape?) and then vibrated to disintegrate the frozen body into pieces. These disintegrated particles are then freeze-dried in a drying chamber wherein only 30% of the original body weight remains. The dry powder (after metal separation, if any, from fillings, bone replacements, etc.) is then put into a biodegradable casket and buried in the top layers of the soil where it is aerobically converted into compost in a matter of few months. Family members can also plant a tree at the place of burial as a flow of life process.

Promession was developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak in the late 1990s. To get the idea off the ground Susanne attended and spoke at trade shows and exhibitions worldwide, at conferences and TEDx, and also founded Promessa Organic. Over the years, her idea and organization received support and partnered with 100 countries. It has also been made legal in Sweden, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. However, the company got liquidated in 2015 for lack of a functional facility and Susanne Wiigh succumbed to cancer in September 2020.

Thought to reduce greenhouse gases by about 35% as compared to cremation, Aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis is a process in which the body of the deceased is immersed for three to four hours in a mixture of water and strong alkali, such as potassium hydroxide, in a pressurized metal cylinder and heated to around 150 deg Centigrade. The process, also known as water cremation, liquifies everything except for the bones. The liquid effluent is sterile, and is discharged with all other wastewater; the bones are dried, reduced to white dust, and handed over to the relatives in an urn.

The anti-apartheid hero archbishop Desmond Tutu was given water cremation or aquamation at his request for an eco-friendly funeral.

First developed by Gunther von Hagens in 1977, Plastination is a preservation method to generate non-toxic anatomical specimens, which can be used for long-term educational purposes. The bodily fluids are replaced by certain plastic polymers, yielding specimens that can be touched, do not smell or decay, and even retain most properties of the original sample. Subsequently, Dr. Von Hagens developed the Body Worlds exhibit, which has been displayed in museums around the world. The details of the plastination process is also given on this website.


While there is no control over the way our brains stop functioning, we can certainly choose a way to contribute to science and/or leave a lesser carbon footprint on our deaths, provided the proper funerary facilities are available at our locations and our close ones are comfortable with our decisions.

Should Aquamation or Promession funerary processes start in India, I would happily opt for any of them (preferably Promession) to be my way to go....

Just musing...

[Cautionary Note: Those who have a very vivid imagination and are a bit squeamish, I'd suggest them to steer clear of the book]

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