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Composting Dead Bodies?

13 June 2001 7:00 pm
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Recycled. The remains of test animal carcasses make good potting soil.

If public opinion proves favorable, Sweden may soon have a more environmentally friendly way of disposing of dead bodies--freezing and composting them. A scientist has come up with a method for turning corpses into humus in a matter of weeks.

"We have to face that there are problems related to conventional burial and cremation," says Susanne Wiigh-Masak, a biologist educated at Gothenburg University and a freelance environmental consultant in Lyrö. Cemeteries sometimes pose a threat to metropolitan water supplies, she notes, and cremation emits toxic gasses.

Her method involves freezing the body, then immersing it in liquid nitrogen to remove water, causing the body to crumble into dust. The 20 to 30 kilograms of fine organic powder that remain are "completely odorless and hygienic," says Wiigh-Masak, who has tested the method on pig and cow carcasses. The remains can be placed in a biodegradable container that disintegrates within 6 months. She says the results make good potting soil: She has planted roses over test coffins with excellent results.

Ecologist Steen Ebbersteen of Uppsala University says the method may be a practical way to stem pollution while enriching the soil. "Ecologically speaking, it is highly desirable to replace a decomposing process that takes decades with fast, clean composting," he says.

Cost-effectiveness remains to be seen--liquid nitrogen is expensive--but there don't seem to be any serious political obstacles to Wiigh-Masak's scheme. She says The Church of Sweden is not offended by it, and government officials have told her that with public support, the relevant laws could be easily changed. She hopes to see her first green burial next year.

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