A little while ago, an issue emerged on a radio programme that I was listening to which caught me by surprise. Given that I play a fairly significant role in the very last moments of many peoples' mortal existence, I was astounded to discover that after burial and cremation, other alternatives for the disposal of mortal remains exist. I intend to examine this in more detail through this blog, perhaps even gaining some guest posts from some people who will know far more than me about the industries concerned, or about the implicit theologies. For now, I am writing from the perspective of instinctive response alone.
In brief, the means of disposal for for human mortal remains (that I know about, so far) are:
1. Burial - the placing of mortal remains into the ground to be buried. Often in a container, this is the the means employed over the longest period of our history. For Christians, this action is surrounded by a ritual act, and is connected to the burial of Christ after his crucifixion, and provides a place for the family to visit and pay their respects to the deceased. Historically regarded as a sanitised way of disposing of a decomposing corpse, it removed the possibility in most cases of appropriation of the remains by animals and others.
2. Cremation - the disposal of mortal remains by means of burning them in an oven (or on pyres in other traditions). The process of reducing the remains at high temperature to their component chemical compounds is regarded as the means of accelerating the process that takes far longer with burial. Again, Christians (and others) precede this action with ritual. The residue after cremation is a granular substance, often comprising the cremulated [crushed] remains of significant bones and joints that were not fully broken down in the process of cremation. These remains are often strewn [sprinkled over ground] or interred [buried under ground].
3. Resomation - A very new process where the mortal remains are 'dissolved' in a water-alkali solution, leaving the whitened remains of the bone structure behind. A green-brown fluid is left behind which can be disposed of in similar ways to the 'ashes' of cremation. The bone residue can also become a focal part of a rite of dispersal. Also referred to as 'corpse composting'.
4. Promession - This is a very new process (1999 patent) that sees the body frozen in liquid nitrogen to such a brittle state that it can be shattered into a damp powder. After certain materials are recycled (metals etc) the resulting power (30% of the pre-mortem volume) is then freeze dried and buried in a container.
5. Compacting - This is a process where the body is compacted in a press (400 ton pressure), thus removing the water, and leaving behind a 'mantle-sized' residue for loved-ones to retain at home. There is no chemical alteration involved.
6. Memorial Diamonds - this involved taking carbon remains (post cremation) or a lock of hair and turning them into a certified diamond for jewellery use.
These are what I have discovered so far. I have tried (and hopefully succeeded) in making this list free of my own opinions at this stage. It ought to be pointed out that only 1 and 2 are legal in Britain, though it is because the other processes are seeking legislation in their favour that I am examining this matter here. The means listed as alternatives claim their rationale in the sphere of environmental impact and its reduction, or otherwise the avoidance of putrefaction and the notion of 'rotting'. They seek to be cleaner in the various ways that the term 'clean' can be applied.
It is possible that I will be asked to preside over a promession or resomation funeral, or asked my opinion. Yes, I have feelings on these, some strong - but I need to be informed of all the facts and indeed the theology implicit in these matters. This is not just about disposal, as Christians have a fairly complex arrangement of beliefs caught up in the transition from life to death. Indeed, there are theologians who will not consider cremation as a viable Christian alternative to burial, and for many Catholics, it is not an option. This is just an example of how the choices are regarded. I would welcome opinion, education, and instinctive responses as well as informed responses to this, as I believe that it is a matter that faces us all, either as people who will want to be 'disposed of' at some point, or as ministers called upon to lead the process spiritually and theologically.