What to Do with Your Body After You Die

The enormous mausoleums of the past are out, and space burials are in.

Aug 1 2013, 8:30pm
The enormous mausoleums of the past are out, and space burials are in. Photo by Derek Mead

Being an adult is hard. And in our vast techno-digital landscape, there are millions of screaming voices, but too few voices to tell us what we need to know to be proper, respectable grown-ups. To help weed through the noise, Motherboard has partnered with the smart minds at the Stuff You Should Know blog to bring you a weekly column about real life.

Being a well-adjusted adult, you are fully aware that you will one day make a fine cadaver, and you eagerly look forward to wowing your friends and relatives with the little surprises only you and your lawyer know pepper your will.

As such, we can only hope that, in addition to hiring a private detective to track down the cab driver who gave you good advice on a ride home one night so that you can surprise include him as a beneficiary to your estate, you also remembered to include some savvy requirement for the disposal of your corpse upon your death. Should you have overlooked this, we have included some suggestions below.

Being as your death will be far in the future, traditional burials will be out of the question, as they are currently dying an increasingly quick death. The sentiment of burying loved ones deep below ground in veneered and cushioned caskets, replacing blood with carcinogenic compounds like formaldehyde and methanol so the corpse can look ghoulishly lifelike for years to come, has lost its appeal to the West.

Cremations—which as recently as the 1970s made up less than 5 percent of American funeral arrangements—are poised to overtake burials by 2025 as the way the bodies of most people in the United States are disposed of, the driving factor being cost. Cremation is much cheaper than traditional burials.

But cremations still leave much to be desired for any forward-thinking human being. Since we are currently alive while we’re considering what will be done with our bodies, we have shown ourselves as thoughtful, considerate people who understand that there will be some impact left by our corpses. It will require money to dispose of our bodies, and, as important, it will require energy and possibly have some negative impact on the environment as well. Naturally, we want to minimize at least the environmental impact we will leave behind as our remains are disposed of.

Bio-cremations? Even dying can be green.

This means that cremation is likely off the table as well. It requires a huge amount of energy to produce a column of fire that will burn at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for the two to three hours it will take to reduce a human body to about three pounds of dust.

Some ways to understand how much energy: You could power 1500 televisions for an hour or drive 4,800 miles with that much energy, if you weren’t dead. Some clever crematoriums have figured out use heat captured from the process to power the process itself, and then being burned seems like it would be an OK move.

But that vaporizing process also releases lots of toxic gas. You are made of a large amount of carbon, which is a greenhouse gas and which is released when you are vaporized, as are any mercury fillings you may have. Cremations in the US are expected to account for about 15,000 pounds of mercury vapor contributed to the atmosphere by the next decade, which seems like a lot.

As is typically the case, one can find alternatives when one looks around a bit. There are two contenders on the horizon that, barring anything taking your life within the next couple of years, should be in place for you to take advantage of when you die.

Getting on board with the idea of having your body reduced to an oily, neutral substance sooner rather than later can help you to be a true early adopter in this area.

Alkaline hydrolysis is an established technology that is already in use—albeit for the disposal of cattle infected with spongiform disease and cadavers that have outlived their usefulness at teaching and research institutions. Because of the utter lack of sentimentality attached to the process and the resulting goo it produces, alkaline hydrolysis has been largely left untouched for regular old funerals, even in places where it’s a legal means of disposing of corpses.

If the green lobby ever gets true power and starts wielding it against end-of-life norms, you will soon likely have no choice, however, so getting on board with the idea of having your body reduced to an oily, neutral substance sooner rather than later can help you to be a true early adopter in this area. Even more appealing, it uses about five to ten percent of the energy cremation does.

In the process of alkaline hydrolysis, your corpse will be slid into a large stainless steel contraption that looks a bit like a freestanding pressure cooker, mainly because that’s what it is. An alkaline solution is introduced into the sealed chamber and heated to between 170 and 350 degrees Fahrenheit (depending on which method is used) and allowed to stew until your skin, organs, tissue and viscera have completely dissolved into the solution. A similar process also introduces pressure to the mix to speed up the process.

All that’s left over is a squishy version of your bones, which are then crushed and presented to your family. The rest of you is gone in virtually every sense of the word: The alkaline solution and heat completely destroy DNA; even a transhumanist would have a hard time conceiving of you being present in the solution at the end of the four hours.

For those who remain sentimental, however, the goo can be gotten and—with the addition of a bit of vinegar to make it fully neutral—could be used to compost a shrub that can then serve as a reliquary for your family to visit and worship at ad infinitum.

Don't want to die? Then live forever!

You could also have yourself freeze dried and crushed into bits. A couple of companies are working on a process called cryomation (not to be confused with cryonics, the process of freezing your body for possible future revival, which is probably complete BS) in which your body is put into a sealed environment and exposed to liquid nitrogen. Employing exactly the same principle used to freeze warts off your body while it’s alive, cryomation quickly freeze dries your entire body, warts and all, removing virtually all of the water that makes up 70 percent of you and leaving you a dry, brittle husk.

Your desiccated corpse is then subject to a machine that’s like an overeager magic finger bed, which vibrates enough to crumble you into dust. A magnet is waved over your corpse dust to collect your old fillings and hip implant and, presto! You are done for in high style. Here, too, the remains are sterile and harmless enough that you can be added to the topsoil to fertilize a Worship Tree for your family.

You could also send your powdered remains, left over after freeze drying or hydrolysis, into space. At least one company offers services that range from affordable (being attached to what amounts to a model rocket and shot into the atmosphere where you will become part of the rain cycle) to extremely expensive (where your powdered remains are sent into deep space during a trip aboard a spacecraft in orbit—here you’d join the ranks of forward thinkers like Gene Roddenberry and Timothy Leary). This is a way to go, sure, but we feel it’s a better move to wait until your corpse can be dressed in a silver jumpsuit and white moon boots and be launched whole into deep space to float around forever.

That’s a bit like a burial at sea, which is actually allowed and not just for sailors. Say you’ve always liked the beach—you can have a burial at sea. If you follow certain stipulations, like boring holes into an unveneered, biodegradable coffin so that you sink quickly and fastening weights to the bottom so you don’t come back up, your whole body can be delivered to the sea to become part of an exotic diet for generations of local sea life. From our research, so long as it too is made from biodegradable material, you could conceivably be buried at sea in a silver jumpsuit as well.

Stuff You Should Know is the brainchild of Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. Along with the original podcast, the pair has now expanded into a TV show and blog, all packed with—what else?—stuff you need to know.