Promession: Sweden’s innovation in corpse disposal

I think it would take a massive change in British sensibilities before people would take promession, the latest innovation in corpse disposal from Sweden, seriously. What do you think? Lets see if the latest media coverage by a Swedish newspaper helps Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak’s cause.

The process of Promession is described as follows:

Step 1

The body is gently frozen down to -18°C.

Step 2

It’s then exposed to liquid nitrogen and becomes brittle.

Step 3

The body is then vibrated, which reduces it to dust.

Step 4

Water is withdrawn from the remains. Mercury and other metals are separated.

Step 5

The remains, now significantly reduced in weight and free from harmful contaminants, are put into an organic, bio-degradable coffin.

Step 6a

The coffin may be buried in the living topsoil where it will be transformed into earth in 6-12 months. A tree or shrub may be planted on the grave, it will absorb the nutrients from the remains and new life may flourish.

Step 6b

The remains may now be safely cremated in a small compact

…However, I was struck by the fact that natural burial already achieves the same ends but without the complicated processes to reduce and change the corpse’s composition beforehand (unless of course, someone chooses to be cremated and then have their ashes interred at a natural burial site, which is another debate entirely!). Re-inventing the wheel perhaps?

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13 Responses to Promession: Sweden’s innovation in corpse disposal

  1. I think there’s a great deal to be said for a technology which renders a dead human portable if portability is preferred — for inexpensive repatriation, for inexpensive scattering… Cremation would seem to be better at this (and alkaline hydrolysis possibly better still). To burn the product of a frozen then gently pulverised body would seem to be an unnecessarily elaborate carry-on. In any case, the Promession is likely to appeal most to composters, who will shun incineration.

    The promise of Promession has been with us for a good many years, now. It seems to be taking a long time to come to market. Is there a prototype yet?

    Burial in topsoil in a grave which will be reused after, say, 25 years. The body given over to nature’s ‘technology’ — bugs and bacteria. Yup, I’d say that, as wheels go, this ancient wheel is as good as a wheel can get. So let’s address the squeamishness around re-use and burial depth!

    • Dr Hannah Rumble says:

      Yes, indeed Charles, burial reuse lies at the heart of the matter and is the sustainable way forward for burial; I said as much only a week ago in a New Scientist interview! I learnt yesterday that the Promessa Company now has a licensee in the UK, so the company has moved beyond a prototype I suspect.

  2. Richard Honeysett says:

    Reading about this new process left me wondering what would be needed to make people comfortable with it as a method for dealing with the body of someone loved and – very recently – lost.

    I don’t know if this has been studied but I suspect most of us feel that, even though the body is inanimate it is still invested with all sorts of meaning. Does this lead to the need for a compatible meaning and purpose in the process of disposal?

    By the bye, it’s interesting that traditional methods of disposal are somehow ‘elemental’ – earth/burial, cremation/fire, Zoroastrian towers/ air and, of course burial at sea/ water. Is this one of the ways that they become ‘natural’ to us?

    I do think that this is part of the difficulty that attaches to these new processes. However sensible (and even ecological) they are, they sound like semi-industrial processes. There is no resonance. Imagination (much more important than belief in this instance) is both repelled and defeated.

    I think there’s interesting research to be done in this area. For example it would be fascinating to track the way that cremation became acceptable over the last years of the nineteenth century – perhaps by a Foucauldian analysis of the changing discourses around death. Or maybe it has been done already. If it has I’d love to read it!

    • Dr Hannah Rumble says:

      Richard,

      You happen upon a big issue when you identify that new disposal methods sound like “semi-industrial processes”. Indeed. My own doctoral research on natural burial found that a broad appeal of natural burial to those who pre-register at these burial sites and for some of the bereaved is that natural burial is the antithesis of industrial processes in popular imagination.

      Having said that, when cremation was first instigated in America, Prothero argues that it was this very alignment with industry and progress etc. that drew people to support cremation.

      The motifs we try to foster or repel in death are inevitably subject to change, as they are indicative of wider socio-cultural processes and concerns at that moment in time. As for tracking the socio-cultural history of cremation, it has been done.

      If America is your interest then I highly recommend Prothero, S. (2001). Purified By Fire: A History of Cremation in America. Berkeley Los Angeles, University of California Press.

      If you are more interested in the British context then I recommend the following:

      Jupp, P. C. (2006). From Dust to Ashes: Cremation and the British way of death. New York, Palgrave Macmilllan.

      Parsons, B. (2005). Committed to the Cleansing Flame: The development of cremation in nineteenth-century England. Reading, Spire Books.

      For a global and interdisciplinary perspective on cremation’s history and current practice, then the following tome is indispensable:

      Davies, D. J. and L. H. Mates, Eds. (2005). Encyclopedia of Cremation. Aldershot, Ashgate.

      Marius Rotar has also written some interesting stuff on cremation’s history in Romania but I do not have a reference to hand.

      Let me know your responses to these key texts and many happy hours reading!

  3. I think that people potentially attracted by the promession theory may find the industrial process off-putting. Natural burial offers ‘composting’ too, you end up as part of the earth, but you don’t have to be processed first.

    As to burial depth, lets not forget about soil type. In sandy soil things happen quickly because there is more air. In clay areas you can add organic matter as a grave lining to compensate.

  4. Ah, Mr Prothero. An excellent book. An academic told me last year (would that I could remember who he is) that the popularity of cremation in Scandinavia was greatly enhanced by fascism and its association with Nordic gods and heroical Viking practice. Each country probably has its own, distinct cultural ‘take’ on the purifying fire (in addition to religious influences).

    My goodness, how useful to have a blogger who supplies us with bibliographies!

    • Dr Hannah Rumble says:

      Yes, that’s a fascinating example of the link between disposal practices and socio-political ideologies, especially pertinent when a new disposal innovation appears on the scene…it’s something that has been written about, albeit not extensively. It’ll be interesting to see in time what people surmise natural burial is socio-politically aligned with. Natural burial is fertile ground (pun unintended!).

  5. Richard Honeysett says:

    Absolutely! Thanks for the booklist – I am off to Alibris (or some such) straight away. I wondered about the impact of different cultures (and climates) on methods of disposal. I did think that people might feel differently about the deep freezing process in the far north. I am sure I remember reading all sorts of intrepid tales about hard winters and bodies unburied, stacked frozen like cordwood till the spring…

  6. Portability,-absolutely, re-use, of course the most efficient use of land, perception of an industrial process,- the heart of the matter. Let’s add in the funeral directing profession many of whom have only just laid down their quill pens, MOJ civil servants who can’t get round to legalising the new disposal methods, let alone authorising re-use outside London, and politicians who are interested in little more than self preservation, no votes in death. Result-change at a glacial pace. I raise the subject at dinner parties now (yes we still have them in Sussex) just to see how uncomfortable friends get!

    By the by Co-op have taken a majority share in Resomation Ltd, as confirmed by Sandy Sullivan this morning. The Scots may make it legal before England and already lawful in six US states.

    Have fun at ANBG tomorrow Hannah!

    • Dr Hannah Rumble says:

      Thanks Stephen. Yes, Sandy’s progress in Scotland is a very interesting one to watch. I can envisage a PhD thesis on it already!

  7. Pingback: The Good Funeral Guide – The week in shorts

  8. Hi Hannah,
    I agree that this is to some extent reinventing the wheel, as I understood you are left with as much as three quarters of what you start with, too much to keep on the mantlepiece, that’s for sure.
    I am involved in the campaign to re legalise outdoor pyres. This is the real test of the public’s alleged squeamishness. I suspect it is less than we are led to believe.

  9. Cynthia Beal says:

    Rupert –

    You may already be aware of this but the first Open Pyre cremation facility has been approved in the US in Crestone, Colorado. Please keep us posted on your progress!

    best,

    Cynthia

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