Promession is a recently coined Swedish word for freeze-drying a dead body, making it into a benign-looking kibble and interring it at approximately pet hamster burial depth. It sounds like another hairbrained funerals of tomorrow story, but despite some unintentionally hilarious promotional material and strangely fierce opposition, promession seems mostly plausible, and preferable to existing burial methods.
It solves several problems associated with death (although not that one big scary one). Burials are running places like Mexico out of graveyard real estate. Meanwhile, conventional cremation has a massive carbon footprint, and it doesn't even fully dispose of the body. The ashes are actually the output of a bone-crunching machine called a Cremulator®.
I recently wrote another piece about burials at the end of which I said I'd prefer to have my body thrown in the woods, which is legal here in California. Someone called me out on Twitter for my bad research:
— Screamin Belcher (@sycobuny) September 19, 2013
@sycobuny is right. The place I linked to offers green burials, but it's a bit of a country club. You still have to fork over a lot of cash for a plot and maybe $5,000 for one of their special green coffins. Plus, some green burial places don't offer shallow burial. They place you six feet under. It turns out that too has it has ecological drawbacks.
Burying someone deep under the topsoil makes no natural sense, even if you wrap them in a shroud of poppy petals and kale. Dead stuff in nature is exposed to the elements. Scavenging animals come. Wind blows. Dirt erodes it away. Dust proverbially turns to dust. In Tibet, they're comfortable with this part of death, and they embrace it. What they call "sky burial" we would call, "being left out for birds to eat."
Instead of turning dust to dust, burial produces methane bubbles and a lot of wet, nasty horror that we tolerate because it happens so far out of sight that we never have to think about it. Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak wants us to think about it.
Enter promession, her brainchild. Promession is a process by which a fresh corpse is frozen to zero degrees fahrenheit with liquid nitrogen, vibrated (seriously) until it breaks up into little bits, exposed to a vacuum which freeze-dries it, skimmed of any metals that might pollute the soil (such as fillings or the plate in your head), placed in an earth-friendly cornstarch receptacle, and buried shins deep, where it rapidly turns to plant food. So while a handful of places in the US offer shallow graves for niche consumers, promession removes much of the ickiness of having a dead body just inches from where you're standing. If I sound overly enthusiastic about it, it's because their promotional video rubbed off on me:
So seeing as promession has been extensively practiced on pigs according to WIRED, turning them into a hygienic, near odorless compost, why isn't it an option for Great Uncle Murray? Politics. Weird, Swedish politics.
Susanne is the inventor, but she's also become its chief advocate. Its chief detractors are, unsurprisingly, the Cemeteries Administration in Stockholm and the Federation of Cemeteries and Crematoria of Sweden, or as Susanne calls them in WIRED, the Swedish "hubs of power" that oppose her. Indeed, the reports from what I'll call "the Swedish death industry" are aggressively negative.
They told WIRED point blank, "The idea does not work." Members of the industry told WIRED
She has kept dead people in a freezer for 10 years. They have been waiting for it to start but the technology... it doesn't work. So now the government has said they can't wait any longer, they have to bury them... I know in the beginning we wanted to talk to her and maybe collaborate. But now she hasn't any... she can't do it.
The vehement refutation is food for thought, but given how Susanne seems eager to move forward, it doesn't scan that she's simply lying, unless she's completely deranged. She seems like her head is together though. She told WIRED the Swedish death industry profits from a taboo on talking about death:
I think it's very convenient for the cremation industry to sustain the taboo because then they can work on their own without any questions. If you tell people for 150 years 'This is a very quiet and complicated area, you don't really want to talk about it do you?' then that's probably what people will end up thinking in the end.
I'd still like to be thrown into the woods when I die. I thought it over, and it does seem potentially traumatic for someone else (a family member maybe) if they have to look at my festering corpse in tact. Therefore I, Mike Pearl, being of sound mind, hereby state that I wish to be freeze-dried when I expire.
More on death: