Chapter 19: To Rot or Burn? The Old and the New in Remains Disposal

I’ll always remember the day my parents sat me down for “the talk” about their death, their will and, in particular, I recall the pride with which they showed me the certificates indicating they had bought, and fully paid for, two plots adjacent in the coveted, crowded, more expensive, in-town Jewish cemetery. Well before they were the age I am now, they and all their friends had thought about their own demise and had made arrangements to spare their kids the expense and burden of doing so last minute when the time came. Of course, this is precisely another of the Very Important Things I’ve put off thinking about, let alone doing. I haven’t yet decided where I’ll be “laid to rest” or exactly how. Turns out, I’m not alone.

Surveys show that only 37 per cent of Canadian adults have made firm plans for their funerals, and only 10 per cent have purchased a burial plot (with women more likely than men to have done both). But, sooner or later, these decisions are there for us all to make; and it probably behooves us to know what the options are (here in the West) before those left behind must act quickly, even while immobilized by grief and confusion.

1. Rot or Burn These two time-tested methods of disposal – burial and cremation – are still the most popular choices in Canada, by far. What you might find surprising is the market share each enjoys. In 1970, well over 90 per cent of all who died in Canada were buried in graves; fewer than six per cent were cremated. As of 2009, the cremation rate was 68.4 per cent (one of the higher national rates in the world); the burial rate, a mere 30 per cent. One probable cause is the influx of immigrants from Asian countries, which favour cremation culturally. Another is the declining influence of the Judeo-Christian religions, which mostly prefer burial. By comparison, the cremation rate in the more “devout” U.S., still stands at less than 40 per cent.

Expense, though, might be the key factor. The average cost of a standard burial in Canada, including burial plot and headstone, is somewhere between seven and ten thousand dollars (about half of what it is south of the border). Cremation, on the other hand, runs between $1,000 at the low end and $5,000 at the absolute high. Despite the recent rise of scaled-down, modest in-ground possibilities (Hebrew Basic Burial in Toronto, for instance, provides more economic versions of the already austere Jewish burial service), cremation, the small-box option, remains the cheapest, quickest solution to a pressing need.

2. Promession A space-age version of cremation, promession, the brainchild of Swedish marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak, involves freeze-drying the corpse using liquid nitrogen, vibrating the brittle result into an organic powder and running the powder through a vacuum chamber to remove the 70 per cent of us that’s water. Where cremation leaves primarily bone ash, what’s left after promession is a biologically complete, dehydrated human. Finally, the powder is passed through a metal detector that extracts any metallic “spare parts” such as fragments of artificial joints and dental fillings, which might contain hazardous environmental contaminants. The organic powder, called “promains,” are then buried in a cornstarch container which, along with the powder, turns to compost in six to 12 months. Flowers or a tree can then be planted, per the wishes of the deceased. All of this is accomplished with far less energy consumption than the 23 litres of oil burned during each cremation – at a cost roughly the same as that of the average cremation. The rub is availability. At present, Promessa has facilities up and running only in Sweden and the U.K., though plans are in the works for expansion into other countries soon, including Canada and the U.S.

3. Cryopreservation This is the practice of “vitrifying” a legally dead person – solidifying the body without, technically, freezing it, at temperatures around the boiling point of liquid hydrogen – and keeping it in super-cold storage against the time when medical science has progressed to the point where the body can be thawed out, kick-started, and cured of whatever disease killed it. As much as this may sound like a low-budget 1950’s horror movie, there are currently some 200 people worldwide who have undergone the process. The two most notable cryonic providers are the European company KrioRus and the Alcor Society, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. The most famous known cryopreserved human is probably baseball immortal Ted Williams whose children, on his death in 2002, ignored his will’s stipulation that he be cremated. The story grew a degree more grisly when it emerged that Williams’ head – which was preserved separate from his body – may have been damaged while it was being placed in its container. The separation of head from torso (to be grafted onto a new body in the ultra-advanced medical future) underlines one of the major downsides of cryopreservation: the price tag. The cost of preserving just your head – “neuropreservation” – comes in around $80,000, with a $500 annual maintenance fee, to be paid by your estate. A whole-body preservation carries an upfront cost of $200,000, which may be why another potential celebrity cryo client, Timothy Leary, ultimately decided against being super-cooled, and opted instead for –

4. Burial in Space Since 1997, lipstick-tube-sized portions of the cremated remains of some 340 people (including Leary and Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry) have been blasted into space aboard rockets. One such capsule belongs to Dr. Eugene Shoemaker, the co-discoverer of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, whose ashes were aboard the Lunar Prospector probe, which impacted the moon in July of 1999. Another belongs to Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, whose remains are being transported by the spacecraft New Horizons, which will photograph Pluto and then carry Tombaugh’s ashes beyond the sun to the stars. According to the price list provided by Voyager Service, the cost of the Capsule Option, which provides for the launch of one gram of cremated remains into deep space, is $12,500. Two people can launch one gram of themselves together for a 50 per cent reduction, a mere $18,750. Plus there’s a 10 per cent discount for veterans. A steal compared to cryopreservation.

5. Burial at Sea, Body Donation and Plastination It is possible, remarkably, for an ordinary, non-naval-attached Canadian, to be buried at sea, but it is strongly discouraged by the Canadian government; sea-committed remains have been dredged up in the past by fishing trawlers. It’s pretty expensive ($2,500 for a permit) and imposes a dizzying array of guarantees and modifications (coffins must include holes for fish to swim through). Less complicated than committing your body to the sea is leaving it to science. Seventeen medical schools in Canada are currently accredited to receive body donations. All require special forms to be filled out by the prospective donor (obtainable either through your family doctor or from university websites). You can either opt for an institution that will use your cadaver for a limited time, then burn it and return your ashes to your family; or for an institution that practises plastination, a modern take on embalming and mummification. Silicone and epoxy plastics replace the water and fat in the corpse, which won’t decay, can be handled and still look pretty much the way it did when it was alive.

6. Vertical Burial This novel land-burial procedure, being pioneered in Australia, will keep you upright and save space. The process involves the boring of a tubular shaft some two feet wide and 10 feet deep; the deceased is lowered feet first into the shaft in a biodegradable bag. In October of 2010, Allan Heywood became the first modern person to be buried vertically. What attracted him to the idea was that Upright Burial, the company behind the new innovation, promised that there would be no headstones, only a GPS co-ordinate of where the particular person was buried; and that after the approximately 40,000 people the field was designed to receive were interned (far more than horizontal burial would allow), it would revert to pastureland. “Once you’re dead, you’re dead all over,” said Mr. Heywood, a self-proclaimed atheist. “It won’t matter to me; it only matters to the living.” Maybe more to the point, he added: “I’ve attended a lot of funerals over the years and I’ve never attended one that I’ve enjoyed.” Which brings me to –

7. My New Idea I agree with Mr. Heywood: funerals are for the living, and they’re almost never fun. Hence my plan: whether I’m buried, burned or dehydrated, I want my marker to be in the shape of a classic Philco Predicta TV circa 1960 with a practical touch screen and a comfortable bench so viewers can take a load off their feet. Visitors will then be able to choose from a selection of videos, some long, some short, by and about moi: my work, my careers, my passions (“Hi! Nice of you to drop by. How much time have you got?”). It might sound immodest and it’s certainly not traditional but, with luck, pace Mr. Heywood, it will be entertaining.

Moses’ Zoomer Philosophy — which launched in ZOOMER Magazine in October 2009 — is a series of monthly essays on age and aging, and the secrets and the science to living better, longer, healthier and happier lives. The first volume of his collection is now available in e-book format on the Kobo Books website.  Click here for more information.