Eco-burial: The future of death

At the funerals of the future, corpses may be frozen solid and shattered into bits.

Twelve years ago, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak was working in her greenhouse in the serene Swedish countryside when a morbid thought popped into her head. As she looked at her plants, her mind turned to death, specifically what happens after living things die. Plants become soil, but people? We either rot or get turned into ashes. “Soil production is beautiful,” she explains. “The other options aren’t so good.” Armed with engineering experience and a biology degree, she retreated to a lab to develop a way to transform human remains into organic waste. Now her company, Promessa Organic, is months away from creating the first ever “Promator.”

Wiigh-Mäsak’s creation will look a bit like a cremator, but instead of heating bodies up it cools them down. The process starts by deep-freezing the corpse, and then uses small vibrations to shatter the body into five millimetre bits. Water is then vacuumed out of the pieces — an important part of the process since H20 is integral to tissue decay. The pieces, which are essentially a dry powder at this point, are then placed in a biodegradable coffin and buried about 20 cm below ground. Once moisture seeps into the coffin, the powder’s nutrients will help to support new life, such as plants and insects.

So far, Wiigh-Mäsak has used the process only on large pigs. (“They’re a good enough look-alike,” she says.) But she’s spoken to people from 10 countries, including Canada, who are eager to buy the machine. If the process works as well on humans as it does on pigs, Wiigh-Mäsak hopes that one day no one will be buried six feet under, a depth too deep to properly break down our bodies.

The Promator is just one of many green inventions being adopted by the death-care industry. Coffins made from cardboard, urns that break down in water, cemeteries that double as parks — the eco-burial industry’s popularity is exploding. Joe Sehee, executive director of the New Mexico–based Green Burial Council says that every year, eco-friendly funerals account for a larger share of the $22-billion North American industry. “Close to 43% of people want a green burial,” says Sehee. “This is becoming mainstream more quickly than any of us would have anticipated.”

Here in Canada, Smith Funeral Homes, based in Burlington, Ont., has jumped on the new trend. The company has a “co-ordinator of environmental stewardship program,” and offers a host of green funeral products. “Families wanted more options,” says Jennifer Rayworth, the funeral home’s environmental co-ordinator.

Smith Funeral Homes is the first of three Canadian funeral homes certified green by the Green Burial Council (GBC) — it got the stamp of approvalin late May. Since then, 15% of families have chosen their eco-friendly option. Buying that alternative doesn’t cost any more than the standard package, and it gets families a biodegradable casket, plant-based embalming fluids and, for cremation, urns that are made from 100% recycled materials. The best part is that providing this type of service, says Sehee, doesn’t cut into the bottom line. It costs just $250 to get the GBC certification (green requirements also have to be met), eco-approved caskets cost no more than traditional ones, and embalming fluid is slowly being phased out anyway.

Many green initiatives replace traditional underground burials, which — thanks to metal caskets, mercury from tooth fillings, and toxic embalming fluid — are worse for the environment than cremation. But finding greener ways to cremate and dispose of ashes is big business, too. John Ross, president of the Cremation Association of North America, says crematory manufactures have found ways to reduce CO2 emissions by 10% to 22% over the past decade.

Improvements to the internal combustion system have been the most notable design change, but a new process called alkaline hydrolysis could help too. In this process — originally developed to dispose of animal carcasses — sodium hydroxide is used to dissolve the body, leaving some tissue and bones. The remaining material is so brittle that a simple shake will turn it into dust.

Upgrading crematoriums with such new technology will cost more up front, but Ross thinks going green could present forward-thinking funeral homes with avenues for growth. In fact, the green movement is now growing so fast that death-care professionals may have to adapt whether they like it or not.