Bodies in metal: sustainable remains, technology and bodily disposal – by Ruth McManus

Published on: Author: David Clark 1 Comment

I like small scale but clever gadgets. Personal favorites are a 1950s wall hung hand coffee grinder and a steam driven stove top expresso pot. They are human scale technologies. While I gain much from the daily exertion they require, the longer I use them, the more I like to think I am paying my dues for the productive thought, effort and organisation that brought them into my life. These gadgets allow me to see myself as sustainably aware.
I was sipping a morning coffee when I opened David’s request for a post on my research. I admit to some uncertainty –would my work interest people following this End of Life Studies blog? To answer this, you need some insight into my current project.

Disposal of the human body

Interested in the creative ways that people face one of life’s most challenging experiences, I have spent some years examining the disposal of the human body: with photographers on the funeral profession’s care for the dead;  with my local council on sustainable cemeteries;  and with ordinary New Zealanders on how they negotiate the cost of a funeral. A couple of years ago I came across two processes. First, dissolution, which  is a chemical/ pressure/ temperature based process of dissolving human remains to an inert liquid fertilizer. Based on the alkaline hydrolysis chemical reaction, it is like an under pressure lye-bath.  Second,  cryoposting. An amalgam of cryogenics and composting, the body is rendered into a bio-degradable powder through freeze-drying and shattering into bio-dust then buried in the active soil layer, akin to  up-cycled composting.  Respectively branded  ‘Resomation’ and  ‘Promession’, both  are  hailed as technologically sophisticated solutions to a pervasive problem. Each spoke to me as harbingers of the next evolutionary step in bodily disposal. Truly drawn to the stainless steel shininess and neatness of the prototype  Resomation TM and Promession TM machines, I could envisage them as a step-progression in the habit of inserting ourselves in metal tubes; the cars, trains, planes and rockets that allow us to move faster and further, or the MRI scanners that digitize our inner reaches. If for transport and internal-inspection, why not for final disposal?

Somewhat irked by the at times overly-romanticized green burial approach to sustainable disposal, I began to pose how, where, for whom and for how much questions to these hi-tech solutions and found there was a lot more going on or not going on, than I realised. These questions sharpened  my research focus on  hi-tech sustainable body disposal and formed the seeds for the Sustainable Remains project, with  dissolution as its first case study.

 

What I’m looking for …

While there is existing research on attitudes to eco-burials (Clayden, Hockey, Green, & Powel, 2009; Rumble, 2011) and an extensive literature on cremation in the UK (including for example Davies, 1990; Grainger, 2006; Jupp, 2005; Parsons, 2005) – there is little understanding of the existing social and material context and the enablers and potential roadblocks for the use of dissolution in the UK. Social science research has yet to investigate the human and institutional landscape of dissolution and its constitutent relationships, despite these networks and relationships being crucial to its successful adoption. Using interviews, network mapping and online surveys, the aim of Sustainable Remains is to document the early history of dissolution for human disposal, paying attention to how technological, political and institutional aspects intersect.

 

Early findings …

In 2005, Sandy Sullivan, managing director of Resomation Ltd., gave the first public description of his invention, the Resomator ®  to the annual conference of the Cremation Society of Great Britain. Its potential as a viable form of bio-disposal was ratified in 2007 when the Cremation Society changed its constitution to ‘extend the objects of the Society so as to accommodate methods for the disposal of bodies which may be superior to cremation, and to amend the Society’s powers to reflect the extension of these objects’ (quoting Rev. Peter Jupp Extraordinary General Meeting, Cremation Society G.B. 2007;  Sullivan, 2013). In the intervening years, Resomation Ltd., has worked with various industry partners in the UK and the USA to improve the technological specifications and hardware for the process. While other parties have successfully legalised dissolution in some jurisdictions of the United States and Australia, there has been little headway in the UK (Matthews Cremation Division). The difficulty in realising the potential of dissolution is perplexing given that on the one hand British society has embraced a turn to sustainability more generally through, for example, hi-tech energy efficiency measures, recycling and the legislative support for low-technology bodily disposal such as green burials, eco- cemeteries and graveyards. On the other hand, Britain’s bodily disposal industries face on-going waves of land use and emissions legislation that limit the expansion of existing methods and infrastructure. At the same time the post-war generation is reaching the limits of its lifespan. Demand is expanding as supply is diminishing. While green burials may be the more familiar option, they lock up limited land in perpetuity and can only ever be a partial and expensive solution. The tipping point where the number of dead bodies will go beyond the country’s carrying capacity is within sight.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. The necessity is undeniable and the inventions are there, but that next step seems wrong-footed; diffusion looks out of reach as neither dissolution nor cryoposting have been able to breach the gap between innovation and uptake.

Early findings have revealed a series of flash-points and conundrums. One is that legal loopholes seem to waylay the advance of dissolution in the UK. For one, dissolution is not an illegal process. This means that it has no regulative legislation to cocoon it. While this may seem a plus point, for those in the industry, it is a hand-brake. Like  trying to drive with the handbrake on, the lack of regulation stalls uptake. Complying with regulations is an important way for those in the death industry to demonstrate their legitimacy and assure their customers. Without regulation, few if any businesses would be prepared to risk their reputation  by offering dissolution as a service, so are not, at this stage,  prepared to invest in the  hardware. Asked about how to get regulation and so release that  handbrake, a scandal is often the most effective way to generate it, however there’s a strong reticence to be the company or organization that brings such a thing to fruition.

Another issue is what to do with the casket. Dissolution requires the body be wrapped in a natural fibre so that it can dissolve in the process. A sticking point is what should become of the casket or coffin – would it become a readily re-useable commodity? Or be abandoned in favour of dissolvable receptacles? Or does the sheer thought of what to do with the coffin make it too problematic to adopt?

While mapping potential pathways and current roadblocks may enable the more effective uptake of a novel method of bodily disposal, or reveal more clearly why it may never become an option, it is also hoped that the study will shed light on the connections between personal beliefs on dying, death and disposal and how we organise for their provision.

Links to end of life care

While not directly and explicitly about end of life care, bodily disposal shares some common ground. Both take place in a context of increased demand and changing moralities and norms associated with death. These unfold in a broader setting where sustainable practices and technological developments are closely entwined. They also share a meeting point and combine to become a nexus between private and public worlds, between the personal and the political, between individuals and the institutions within which they live and die. Good end of life care is more than effective pain management and an oft-stated aim is to integrate the dying person’s beliefs and self-understanding into their experience of dying. This includes the question of what is to be done with a person’s mortal remains. Given the growing acceptance of eco-sustainability in personal politics, it makes sense that there is growing interest in sustainable disposal options. Good end of life care then may also include an awareness of and attention to these new eco- sensibilities and possibilities.

Ruth McManus is a graduate of the University of Glasgow and is currently Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department  of Sociology and Anthropology,School of Language, Social and Political Sciences,University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Email: ruth.mcmanus@canterbury.ac.nz

References

Clayden, A., Hockey, J., Green, T., & Powel, M. (2009). Living with the dead. Journal of landscape architecture, 4(2).

Davies, J. D. (1990). Cremation today and tomorrow. Nottingham: Grove Books.

Grainger, H. (2006). Death Redesigned: British Crematoria – History, Architecture and Landscape London: Spire Books.

Jupp, P. (2005). From Dust to Ashes:Cremation and the British way of death. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Matthews Cremation Division. Bio-cremation Retrieved 30/7/2013, 2013, from http://biocremationinfo.com/Introduction.aspx

Parsons, B. (2005). Committed to the Cleansing Flame: The Development of Cremation in Nineteenth-century England: Spire Books

Rumble, H. (2011). “Giving something back”: A case study of woodland burial and human experience at Barton Glebe. . PhD, Univesrity of Durham, Durham. Retrieved from http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/679/

Sullivan, S. (2013). Resomation Ltd. Retrieved 30 July 2013, from http://www.resomation.com/

 

 

One response to Bodies in metal: sustainable remains, technology and bodily disposal – by Ruth McManus Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. I am very taken by the environmental advantages of resomation as opposed to cremation and see the wrapping of the body in natural materials as a sensible development. The use of Coffins is part of the way we hide death away. The carrying of the body on a stretcher, wrapped in a cotton shroud and covered by a woolen blanket could become a wonderful norm to help connect us to the mortality that we all share.

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