Sunday, May 23, 2004

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

Traditional burials and cremations hurt the environment by polluting air and water and upsetting the ecology of the sea. This led 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,” Mrs. 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.

Mrs. Wiigh, who also manages the island’s only shop well-stocked with organic food next to an impressive greenhouse, concedes that “we clearly can’t go back to that,” but said her method is as close to nature as modern ethics allow.

The method consists of taking the corpse’s temperature to minus 321 Fahrenheit in a liquid-nitrogen bath and breaking the brittle body down into a rough powder through mechanical vibration.

The remains are then dehydrated and cleared of any metal, reducing a body weighing 165 pounds in life to 55 pounds of pink-beige powder, plus the remains of the coffin.

The whole process occurs in a facility resembling a crematorium and takes about two hours. A corpse buried in a coffin takes several years to decompose completely.

Mrs. Wiigh says compost always has 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. She thinks the powder would be incorporated completely into the plant within a few years.

“The plant becomes the perfect way to remember the person. When a father dies, we can say, ‘The same molecules that made up Daddy also built this plant,’” said Mrs. Wiigh, whose late cat Tussan currently nourishes a rhododendron bush in her front garden.

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

What might look like no more than an ecologist’s dream vision might have serious business potential, breathing new life into an innovation-shy industry.

Industrial-gas company AGA Gas, part of Germany’s Linde group, has invested in the idea, taking a controlling stake of 53 percent in Promessa, alongside Mrs. Wiigh’s 42 percent and 5 percent 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 many people may feel is better than today’s alternative.”

The city of Joenkoeping, in southwestern Sweden, already has decided it will not replace its outdated crematorium and will become the first customer of Promessa. The freeze-drying installation, which will be cheaper than the 2 million euro price of a new crematorium, will 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.

But queries have come from as far away as South Africa, where the soil often lacks the depth needed for ordinary burials.

There also might be sales potential in countries where religion makes cremation difficult or impossible, such as Muslim countries.

And Swedish designers have been stirred into action by the new method, focusing their attention on making containers that are smaller than traditional coffins and biodegradable.

Stockholm design graduate Linda Jaerned has made two prototypes, for those who would like their freeze-dried remains to be buried in a container, rather than just mixed with soil.

One is a soft tube made of felt, resembling a paper dragon in a Chinese New Year parade, and the other is a more traditional-looking box made of plywood and linen.

“The first one will disintegrate completely in about a year, and the second one will last longer, maybe up to five years,” she said at the Stockholm design school.

“I think this is the future. We don’t have so much space for the dead. The living will take more and more space,” Miss Jaerned said.

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