The future of funerals: melting bodies with lye

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An article on Newsvine nicely illuminates its readers on the future of corpse disposal: melted in a vat of lye into a brown, feculent sludge, then flushed down the toilet.

Since they first walked the planet, humans have either buried or burned their dead. Now a new option is generating interest – dissolving bodies in lye and flushing the brownish, syrupy residue down the drain.

The process is called alkaline hydrolysis and was developed in this country 16 years ago to get rid of animal carcasses. It uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that are similar to pressure cookers.

Getting the public to accept a process that strikes some as ghastly may be the biggest challenge. Psychopaths and dictators have used acid or lye to torture or erase their victims, and legislation to make alkaline hydrolysis available to the public in New York state was branded “Hannibal Lecter’s bill” in a play on the sponsor’s name – Sen. Kemp Hannon – and the movie character’s sadism.

This quote from a Catholic priest is priceless:

“We believe this process, which enables a portion of human remains to be flushed down a drain, to be undignified,” said Patrick McGee, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester.

Frankly, I’m hard pressed to think of anything more undigniified than the current funeral industry, which makes a point of bilking grieving family members with cheap caskets marked up by maudlin sentimentality and insinuating branding. You can flush me down the toilet for all I care, just as long as my widow doesn’t need to decide whether or not she loved me enough to spend another $10,000 on the “Cherished Forever” casket.

New idea in mortuary science: dissolving bodies with lye [Newsvine]

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23 Responses to The future of funerals: melting bodies with lye

  1. Anonymous says:

    A body will not decompose naturally if you bury it below the humus layer. It is not ecologically sound to bury bodies in the conventional manner.

    There has been much media commotion in Sweden about a woman who developed a hygienic method for burying bodies in shallow graves.

    The idea is to deep freeze the deceased and shake the body until it shatters to dust. The remains are buried in shallow graves.

    Here is a link:
    http://www.promessa.se/allafragor_en.asp

  2. Qozmiq says:

    I guess murders are only 60 lbs of pressure away from flushing their victoms dow the toilet.

  3. gATO says:

    Shutz:
    “Basically, you inject one fluid that temporarily preserves the body for up to 2 weeks or so, then, right before burial, you inject the second fluid, which negates the preservation effects of the first one.”

    Yikes… that brought to mind images of reanimated corpses waking up confused, screaming in pain and horror, after being injected with the second fluid…

    On a serious side, until freeze drying becomes common place, I think cremation is the way to go; I’ve never understood why waste good lands burying people, and the emotional attachment to something that basically amounts to a patch of grass and a block of stone over a decomposing body.

  4. Caroline says:

    Jake0748, fortunately this is not true. Green burials (without embalming, concrete vaults or expensive caskets) are becoming an option. Here’s one place that does them: http://www.memorialecosystems.com/Home/tabid/36/Default.aspx (That website makes it a little hard to find information, but if you read through it, there’s lots of fascinating stuff.)

    I’m considering writing this into some sort of living will — when I die, I want to be planted like that, and plant a tree on top of me.

  5. Jake0748 says:

    @10 Caroline – Very cool. Thanks for the info.

  6. monopole says:

    One word:
    Plastination!

    My father wants to be bronzed and left on the bus.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow, that is lame. Let’s use caustic chemicals. Na, the wave of the future is converting the body to bio-fuel

  8. Jake0748 says:

    I don’t know… I’m just asking, so don’t yell at me. But how much pollution and carbon would be released into the atmosphere if everyone was cremated? Would there be a detrimental effect on the environment?

  9. Argon says:

    I find the freeze-drying method better, anyway. http://www.boingboing.net/2005/10/19/freezedried-funeral.html

  10. Res Cogitans says:

    My favorite option would just to be tossed into the ocean. I’ve eaten plenty of crab and lobster in my time, seems only fair to return the favor. There’s something satisfying about the notion of being returned to the bottom of the food chain.

  11. Chevan says:

    >It uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that are similar to pressure cookers.

    What? That’s a horrendous waste of energy compared to just sticking someone in the ground or burning them.

  12. tp1024 says:

    And of course there is yet another method:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Towers_of_Silence

    Also very green, though slightly on the gory side, the Zoroastrians thought their bodies were so unclean, that neither earth nor fire should be contaminated by them. The alternative they found was most natural: they expose the bodies of their relatives to nature and let the vultures eat them. What works just fine for lions, gnus and zebras can’t be wrong for humans either.

  13. Anonymous says:

    You could use the old Sherlock Holmes method: embalming in honey. Natural AND effective. Bonus: you’d be in good company. This method has a long, colorful history.
    http://www.honey-health.com/honey-57.shtml

  14. technogeek says:

    I’m not sure it strikes me as significantly better than cremation. Water pollution rather than air pollution. I wonder how well sewage treatment plants would deal with the resulting effluent. Hazmat?

    Mostly, it sounds like another expensive service for the industry to sell us.

    If they came up with a good way to turn us into fertilizer, that might be more interesting. Alas, I don’t think that’s practical.

    Actually, I sorta like the solution a friend of a friend came up with: Cremation, then mix the ashes with potter’s clay and do something artistically interesting with them.

  15. Jake0748 says:

    Agree with #1, what’s so great about putting human remains into the sewage system? It would be much greener to figure out a way to facilitate what should happen naturally. Body dies, decomposes, adds nutrients to the soil.

  16. shutz says:

    There’s already an easy way to turn a corpse into fertilizer: you bury them.

    Also, after perhaps watching too many crime dramas (and other things like the X-Files) I really think burial remains the best option, as long as you avoid all that bilking of grieving family members; just put me in a quickly-decomposing cardboard box, then throw some dirt on me before closing the box.

    There’s always a chance that your remains might have to be dug up, later on, for some investigation or other, so might as well keep these bodies “around”, while providing some fertilizer for the local vegetation.

    What is the need for this new corpse-disposal method, again? I doubt it’s any more environmentally-friendly than cremation. I’m all for freedom of choice, but why add more pointless options? Could anyone explain to me what the appeal of this solution is? (I’m not disgusted by it, I just don’t see what makes it better or more desirable than the other options.)

  17. Irreal says:

    The old funeral industry is a bit much with the caskets. I used to be a funeral director, and my advice would be to avoid caskets and get the simplest coffin you can get.
    A black painted Jewish/Islamic coffin is usually best. they are very simple and cheap, no metal, no ugly linings, no terrible varnishes and fake wood grain.
    Mind you, #21 above sounds good, though unless you use double layer graves, you won’t actually save space.

  18. starknation says:

    Sounds like the first step in building a Soylent Green factory! ‘Flushed down the drain’ is likely a euphemism for ‘Pumped to vat B’.

  19. Paul Coleman says:

    One of the problems I see with burial are all of the nasty fluids they pump into you to keep you from smelling/decomposing during the wake period.

    I’d be very happy if they buried me without all the freaky liquids and ridiculous box.

    Because I farm, I’d actually like to see the fertilizer I turn into used…not much chance of that tho given current laws.

  20. Jake0748 says:

    #3 – I was thinking burial too. But my it’s my understanding that nowadays most corpses are embalmed and hermetically sealed up in coffins before being buried (and I THINK I’ve read that this is required by law in many places. I believe these practices negate any fertilizer value a buried body might have.

  21. License Farm says:

    Christ, don’t get so goddamn fancy. Cremate, spread the ashes and be done with it. It’s the body, not the person.

    I remember about 4 years ago I was working for a company and they were trying to get me to take out a life insurance policy despite that I have no spouse or dependents. “But what about when you die?” this woman asked indignantly. “Do you want your family to have to pay out the nose to have you buried?”

    “What the fuck do I care? I’ll be dead! Why shouldn’t they have to shoulder that last bit to see me off? Or fuck it, throw me in the Hudson and be done with it if economy is so important.” She was very perturbed that I wasn’t going along with the employee lockstep and wanted me to sign a waiver specifically stating I didn’t want life insurance.

  22. mrfantasy says:

    Yeah, the current funeral practice of pumping a dead body full of chemicals, dolling it up for a viewing, and then sealing it in a casket (which then usually goes in a concrete box in the ground) isn’t exactly what I call dignified. Bodies generally liquefy in the casket. I’d love my body to be stuck in the ground and a tree planted right over it.

  23. shutz says:

    Instead of wasting time on finding ways to turn corpses into sludge, we should be looking for ways to embalm that will cause the body to be preserved as needed for a reasonable wake viewing time (I can understand that need for some people) and then the fluids and other substances pumped into the body should either spontaneously, or through the injection of another substance, make the resulting corpse compost-worthy again.

    Basically, you inject one fluid that temporarily preserves the body for up to 2 weeks or so, then, right before burial, you inject the second fluid, which negates the preservation effects of the first one.

    Perhaps the only other needed thing would be for the results (after the second liquid is inserted) to not cause the corpse to start stinking again.

    Also, anyone who dies of a communicable disease should be cremated, for obvious public health reasons.

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