10 July 2009

Not just burial or cremation

When pondering the fate of our mortal remains, most of us think burial or cremation. If these strike you as dull, why not consider some of the more exotic choices available?

When pondering the fate of our mortal remains, most of us weigh up the pros and cons of the two standard methods: burial or cremation. But if either of these strike you as too dull and uncreative a way to bow out, maybe you’d like to mull over some of the more exotic choices available to the modern human corpse.

Should any of the following strike your fancy, you might need to also make arrangements to have your remains exported, because most of these procedures aren’t yet available in South Africa.

The deep freeze
Swedish company Promessa Organic AB is developing what may prove to be an environmental breakthrough in disposing of remains: freeze-drying.

Promessa explains that the process involves freezing the corpse and then submerging it in liquid nitrogen, making it very brittle. Ultrasound converts the body into an organic powder which is dried in a vacuum chamber. The “hygienic and odourless” final product, when placed in a coffin made of corn starch and buried in a shallow grave to speed the process, converts to compost after about 6-12 months. A favourite tree can be planted over the site, literally and symbolically continuing the ecological cycle.

Many countries, including South Africa, have expressed interest in this promising new technology, which should become available this year. Some scientists have expressed reservations about the method, however, saying that, among other potential drawbacks, freeze-drying may not prove to be significantly environmentally superior to other more conventional methods.

The big chill
Cryonics is the preservation of human bodies at low temperatures for possible eventual resuscitation (perhaps 100 years from now), when a cure has been found for the original cause of death.

Once your deceased body reaches the cryonics facility, circulation and breathing are artificially restored, the body is cooled, and then the blood is replaced with preserving solutions. Oxygen is continuously circulated to (ostensibly) prevent brain damage. In an attempt to retain memory, the brain is infused with chemicals that prevent ice crystal formation during the cooling process (at -196 °C).

Scientists say that if it works, you will feel like you have merely woken up from a deep sleep. If it works...

Access to cryo-preservation can cost $170 000 upwards, a bit pricey for the average citizen – especially given that there’s no guarantee of ultimate success. Nonetheless, since 1967 more than 100 people have been cryo-preserved, and over 1 000 have made arrangements to go the same way.

Plastination: strike a pose
Plastination is the use of plastic polymers to infiltrate and preserve tissue for educational, research or diagnostic purposes. Recently, it has also been used – with great success and not a little controversy – as a form of ‘educational entertainment’ in exhibitions.

The process involves draining all liquids from dissected parts of the body, and replacing the fluid with polymer. Unique gases and heat are then applied to the parts, hardening and ‘fixing’ the tissue.

Plastination’s proponents point out that the final product is clean, odourless and permanent. It's an excellent way to educate students, because the tissues possess interactive visibility. Many universities are opting for plastination over formaldehyde-preserved cadavers.

Furthermore, plastinated body parts can be placed back together to form a display model, as pioneered by Heidelberg anatomist Gunther von Hagens, who has used such figures in specific poses in his popular ‘Body World’ exhibitions.

Should you go the public display route, you can even choose which pose your body will take.

Feed the birds
Followers of the Zoroastrian faith in India and Buddhists in Tibet choose to have their remains dispatched by birds of prey. Zoroastrians' bodies are exposed to the elements – and the vultures – by being placed in a circular stone tower open to the sky. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhists observe ‘sky burials’, in which the body is first chopped up, and then left to the birds – and sometimes also wild dogs.

Environmentally, this is a clean, efficient method – or was until the vulture population in India started to decline in recent years, forcing authorities to seek additional ways to dispose of remains.

Go boldly
Space Services, a Houston-based aerospace company, offers ‘memorial spaceflights’, in which a portion of your cremated remains is loaded into a sealed container, attached to a satellite, and then shot into space.

On launch day “families gather at the liftoff site to share the experience of seeing the loved one's dream of space flight realized. With a roar and a fiery streak across the sky, the rocket lifts its precious load higher and higher into the peaceful solitude of space.”

This will cost you anything from a paltry $995 to have one gram of your remains sent into the earth’s orbit, to $12 500 to get as far as the moon or deep space.

Apparently, say Space Services, their spacecraft are “carefully designed so as not to create orbital debris”.

Sleep with the fishes
Eternal Reefs, a US-based company, will mix your cremated remains into the concrete of a ‘reef unit’, or ‘reef ball’, an artificial structure designed to mimic part of a real coral reef, to which it is then added.

The idea is that marine creatures, under pressure from the destruction of coral reefs, can then use you as a new home. This concept does in fact have scientific legitimacy: similar structures are being used in an attempt to rehabilitate reefs in different parts of the world.

Shine on
LifeGem, yet another US-based company, converts the carbon in cremated ashes to create a “certified, high-quality diamond created… as a memorial to their unique life”, which then can be worn by a friend or family member, or kept safe in a jewellery box.

This will set you back anything from $2 699 to $19 999 for a loose stone. Setting is extra. The service is also available for dearly departed pets.

Get plastered
A few countries have built memorial parks that contain a "niche wall". This is a solid granite structure with numerous small holes or spaces, where your cremation ashes can be deposited and then sealed into the wall. A plaque marks the spot where the ashes are poured, providing identification for the deceased. Neat, space-saving and cosily communal.

(Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Expert, and Matthew Louw, Health24, updated June 2009)

Source material:
Eternal Reefs: official website
Gunther von Hagens Bodyworlds: official website
LifeGem: official website
Lonely Planet Tibet (2005); Lonely Planet Publications; 6th edition
Promessa Organic AB: official website Space Services: official website

Read more:
Death - a greener way to go
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