Thu, May 20, 2004 - Page 16 News List

A new way to rest in peace

A new method of dealing with dead bodies is to freeze them, break them down and dehydrate them -- before they become plant food


Stockholm design graduate Linda Jaerned , in Stockholm, shows one of the two prototypes she has made, for those who would like freeze-dried remains to be buried in a container, rather than just mixed with soil. An environmentally friendly method of burying the dead is offering stiff competition to traditional funerals, transforming corpses into organic compost.


An environmentally friendly method of burying the dead is offering stiff competition to traditional funerals, transforming corpses into organic compost and giving people the chance to come back as flowers.

Six-feet-under burials and cremations hurt the environment by polluting air and water, and upset the ecology of the sea, prompting Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh to come up with an alternative.

"Nature's original plan was for dead bodies to fall on the earth, be torn apart by animals, and become soil," Wiigh said in Lyr, a small romantic island off Sweden's southwestern coast, where she lives with her family and runs her company, Promessa AB.

Wiigh, who also manages the island's only shop well-stocked with organic food next to an impressive greenhouse, acknowledges that "we clearly can't go back to that," but claims that her method is as close to nature as modern ethics will allow.

The method is chilling: It consists of taking the corpse's temperature to minus 1960 C in a liquid nitrogen bath and breaking the brittle body down into a rough powder through mechanical vibrations.

The remains are then dehydrated and cleared of any metal, reducing a body weighing 75kg in life to 25kg of pink-beige powder, plus the remains of the coffin.

The whole process takes place in a facility resembling a crematorium and lasts for about two hours.

A corpse buried in a coffin will take several years to decompose completely.

Wiigh says compost has always been her passion. "For me it's really romantic. It smells good, it feels like gold," she said.

And like all compost, human remains should be used to feed plants and shrubs, planted by a dead person's family, and would disappear completely into the plant within a few years, she believes.

"The plant becomes the perfect way to remember the person. When a father dies, we can say: the same molecules that built Daddy also built this plant" said Wiigh, whose dead cat, Tussan, currently nourishes a rhododendron bush in her front garden.

Wiigh herself, a quiet-spoken woman with an easy smile who dedicates 60 hours a week to Promessa, would herself also like to turn into a rhododendron, of the white variety.

What may look like no more than an ecologist's dream vision may well have serious business potential, breathing new life into an innovation-shy industry, which seems almost as inanimate as its customers.

Industrial gases company AGA Gas, part of Germany's Linde group, has invested in the idea, taking a controlling stake of 53 percent in Promessa, alongside Wiigh's 42 percent and 5 percent which is held by the Church of Sweden.

"The commercial potential could be quite large," said AGA spokesman Olof Kaellgren, whose company contributes expertise of the nitrogen cooling process.

But he stressed that AGA considers the new method to be "a complement to already existing methods and therefore giving a new opportunity to make a choice that for many people feels better than today's alternative."

The city of Joenkoeping, in southwestern Sweden, has already decided that it will not replace its outdated crematorium, instead becoming the first customer of Promessa.

The installation, which will be cheaper than the 2 million euro (US$2.4 million) price tag for a new crematorium, is to be ready next year.

Promessa has applied for patents in 35 countries. Its immediate foreign markets are in ecology-conscious Northern Europe and include Scandinavia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, where the next installation is likely to be built.

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