Ashes to…What?

It’s been a while since I’ve written about options after death.  But that hardly means the industry has been standing still, twiddling it’s figurative thumbs waiting for me to pipe up. 

In the battle for environmentally friendly options for the dearly departed, another option has entered the fray.  A Scottish firm has created a process that essentially speeds up the natural decomposition process that a body goes through after burial.  The search for a clever, inspiring name has led this firm to the term resomation.  If you weren’t clear about the eco-friendly aspect of this form of burial, the name should give you a nudge.  It borrows from the Greek word for the body or birth, soma.  Articles on this can be found here and here

Essentially, the body is boiled in a mixture of lye and water.  What is left are some bone shards and 200 gallons of environmentally-friendly fluid.  Said fluid is suitable for disposal down any drain, into the public sewer system.  It would also be usable for lawns or garden watering.  I would think it rather strange to use it to fill a water bed, but, to each their own, I’m sure.

Promoters claim it’s more economically friendly and efficient than either traditional burial or cremation.  And while this is true, it appears equally true that there are other even *more* eco-friendly options than this one. 

I find it interesting that they quote Catholic ethicist Sr. Renee Mirkes as saying the Catholic Church is fine with this option.  “The way we dispose of a human corpse takes its essential moral character from the motive or intention for which the particular dispositional method is chosen“.  I tend to agree, which is why I would consider this to be on shaky ground, morally.  It would seem that once again the emphasis is more on protecting the environment than honoring the dead.  And I’ll say it again for those who have missed it in the past – I’m all for protecting the environment.  Whether it’s leaching formaldehyde into the ground in traditional burial or using massive amounts of gas or other fuel to cremate a body, there are problems in our burial techniques which ought to be addressed.  And yes, resomation is similar to what happens eventually to a body.  But what is the ultimate intent here?

It seems to me that the ultimate intent and focus is the environmental factor, not the honoring of a human being.  What are people going to do with 200 gallons of fluid?  I’m sure the bone fragments will be suitable for placing in an urn on a mantle, but what about the liquid?  Are they just going to have that disposed of into the sewer?  Will resomation facilities have tanks for the fluid which are dedicated to watering the lawns and plants and other vegetation on the property?  I can’t imagine that someone is going to take several 55-gallon drums home with them for personal disposal.  It seems far more likely that the fluid will simply be flushed away, and that hardly seems like an honoring thing. 

5 Responses to “Ashes to…What?”

  1. Marie Says:

    Do you know about Catholics and cremation? Once upon a time, it was discouraged (never forbidden) because some people centuries ago cremated on purpose to deny the resurrection of the body. I’m guessing that’s the deal with this Catholic’s answer. Funny thing is, I doubt the folks chemically destroying the body in this method even consider such crazy metaphysical considerations. . . .

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Considering that the fate of heretics was often to have their bones/corpses burned and scattered, it’s been my understanding that cremation is (or was?) normally a no-no for Catholics.  The best burial option was on church property – ‘holy ground’ essentially, and as close to the physical building as possible.  Is this still the case – either explicitly or implied?  The ethicist that they quoted here really surprised me with his rather laissez-faire approach to the treatment of the body!  I’d be interested in your observations.And yes, I’m sure the people that developed this process were focused more onn issues of efficiency and environmental impact.  Although I don’t believe this solution is best in either of those categories, I’m willing to concede that it’s less environmentally impactful than the chemical burial process or traditional cremation techniques.

  3. Marie Says:

    Oh, don’t look to me for much good info on what Catholics do, especially on what they do “these days”! There seems to be almost an encouragement of cremation today, our last parish had a place on the grounds to hold the urns. Maybe that’s an old version of the “holy ground” idea, since I can’t think of a church I’ve seen that was built in the last 30 years that has had a cemetery near it — sadly.I think in the 50s a lot of Catholics were told they couldn’t cremate, which led a lot of Catholics to think the Church was arbitrary and superstitious, so a lot of priests and bishops probably go out of their way to distance themselves from that off-label tradition. . . I read once about a Tibetan tradition where the body was left out for wild birds to take care of. Seems like the most environmentally friendly method to me, and while I know traditionally (like, in Greek tragedy) that’s a horrible way to treat the dead, I’m guessing lye would be frowned upon by Antigone (?) also?Personally, I’m not sure how it’s not best to just skip the embalming and go with a plain box and burial.

  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    It seems like a simplified traditional burial would be about as eco-friendly as anything.  Creating/utilizing 200 gallons of liquid in the decomposition process seems problematic, to say the least.   My concern in talking with people about these issues is that they recognize that there is a theology of the body, and that should be considered in death just as in life.  In other words, the human body is a gift, and a gift that has eternal implications.  Our choices in death ought to at least recognize this, rather than assume the only real consideration is the carbon foot-print associated with our options.  This can be done in many ways, such as in the memorial service itself.  Cost plays a major factor for many people as well.  There are all sorts of competing voices in terms of the statement our treatment of a deceased body should make.  I just want people to consider first and foremost the statement that this was, is, and will be – a creation of God.

  5. Death – Again | Living Apologetics Says:

    […] over the years on the topic of how a Christian approaches death and burial (here, here, here, here, and here). I keep revisiting the topic because the topic continues to be revisited in our larger […]

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