A blooming good idea for organic burials


Regarding conventional burial as a drain on natural resources, a Swedish entrepreneur has come up with the concept of ‘living soil’ – a 100 per cent ecological demise

WHEN SWEDISH eco-minded entrepreneur Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak departs this life, she will be turned into compost to help grow a shrub she has already selected . “It is the Rhododendron Cunningham White, a delicate pink shade when it opens, later turning white. I can think of no better way to continue the circle of life than to return to the soil and nurture it,” she says.

To achieve what she describes as a 100 per cent ecological demise – the official name she has given the process is “promession” – the ecologist and biologist has spent decades developing a unique system of recycling human bodies as fertiliser, yet respecting the memory of the deceased and sensibilities of mourners.

This ecological alternative to cremation or conventional burial involves freezing the body to minus 18 degrees before being submerged in liquid nitrogen. The then very brittle corpse is turned into a fine powder by a short vibration of specific amplitude, removing the 70 per cent water component from the remains by so-called freeze drying followed by burial in a biodegradable box made from corn starch in a shallow grave.

The entire treatment is a closed and individual process and once the corpse in “the ceremony coffin” is placed in the “promator” machine, human hands do not handle the remains again.

“The living soil,” the inventor explains, “turns it into compost in about six to 12 months. The compost formed is taken up by the plant continuing the ecological cycle of which every living thing is part. That shrub or tree will then stand as a symbol of the person.

“Death instills anxiety, fear and finality for many of us. But the lifecycle with organic burial goes on. That makes death more acceptable and less sorrowful and is creating a lot of interest here in Sweden and abroad.

“I have been to South Korea nine times to talk and have support from the Unesco sustainability fund and other environmental bodies.”

She set up her company, Promessa Organic, from her home on a Swedish island north of Gothenbourg in 2001 to realise her goal. To date, 60 countries, including the United States, Canada and the Netherlands, have expressed interest in the technology, for which she holds the worldwide patent.

Three countries – the UK, South Africa and South Korea – are already licence holders to the technology, seeing it as a green improvement of the two conventional burial alternatives.

Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, the deceased (still in organic form) becomes part of the composted soil supporting the life of a tree, a shrub or rosebush above the grave.

To date, promession has been tested on naturally deceased animal carcasses and rhododendron and shrubs planted in the soil produced “excellent blooms and healthy growth”.

Conventional burial, according to Wiigh-Mäsak, an expert in organic cultivation and composting, has serious environmental consequences for our most important resources, water, soil and air. A whole tree may be used to make a traditional coffin and urban districts experience huge problems as graveyard space runs out.

Burials require that a corpse be filled with embalming fluids, which pollute the ground water, and the absence of oxygen at the depth of traditional graveyard burials prevents the body from being turned into mulch.

She reserves more criticism for cremation, which environmentalists say burns fossil fuels and releases pollutants into the air, using up to 35 litres of fluid oil and half a kilo of activated carbon for each cremation.

In Sweden, cremation is believed to contribute to one-third of the country’s total mercury emissions. “Cremation is neither ecologically correct nor environmentally sound,” Wiigh-Mäsak argues.

The world’s first “promatorium” (inspired by the Italian word promessa meaning oath or truth) aims to be up and running by next year, having encountered a recent set back when it was forced to relocate from the planned site after opposition from a few conservative local politicians who belong to the Church of Sweden.

The staff of a crematorium beside where the new service was to operate were “very supportive” and also had concerns about their own long-term health due to the environmental impact of fumes from crematoria.

Criticism has mainly come from Sweden’s nationwide and most-used funeral service Fonus, in which the official state church is the main investor, owning all the crematoria.

“This method does not exist in the world, it is just an idea,” a spokeswoman for Fonus recently told The Local, Stockholm’s online newspaper.

But, in fact, promession is close at hand and an ecological burial is included as a lawful and accepted alternative in the Church of Sweden’s official burial guide.

Promessa Organic even has 12 bodies awaiting the process in the freezers of crematoria around Sweden. One of them has been waiting since 2002.

“It is not hard for the family because the deceased person specifically wanted a true ecological burial,” explains Wiigh-Mäsak. “They are willing to wait to have that last wish granted.”

Folke Gunther, whose wife Jane died two years ago and is in a freezer awaiting an ecological burial, totally supports her choice.

“For now I just look forward to getting it [promession] here and finishing the process,” said the widower who will plant Jane’s favourite tree above her remains. He hopes that will be in time for next spring.

Further information promessa.se