Design, reinforced by research, reveals an urgent call to liberate city life from the burden of outmoded practices. A community’s need for sanitary and sensible disposal of corpses is intertwined with the need of survivors to organize meaningful rituals and to lastingly memorialize the deceased.
DeathLAB’s body of research includes critically theoretical spatial propositions, data projections, scientific inquiry, and aims to develop ways to reduce the adverse impacts of our living years on the environment.
- 800,000 gallons of toxic embalming fluid, risking groundwater and soil leaching.
- Nearly 2 million caskets purchased in the United States annually.
- Over 90,000 tons of steel, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, and over 30 million board feet of hardwoods used annually for buried caskets.
- 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 14,000 tons of steel used annually for burial vaults and vacuum-sealed industrial casket bunkers. (1)
- To provide a desirable last image for the bereft, the corpse is disinfected, and its eyes and mouth are set, stitched, or sealed. In addition, 2 to 3 gallons of arterial chemicals are injected, while blood from the corpse is drained into the municipal sewer.
- Remaining bodily gas and fluids are suctioned or desiccated from internal organs, which are then also injected and packed with embalming fluids, including formaldehyde, phenol, and other hazardous or carcinogenic chemicals, to “disinfect” and delay decomposition.
- Following the mechanics of preservation, which include dyes to restore "natural" coloration, and humectants to mimic "living" hydration, the hair, the clothing, and a resting position are styled to present the corpse as if it in a benign yet enigmatic sleep.
- During combustion, non-renewable fuels are used extensively, and toxic hot gases are regularly released to the atmosphere during incineration.
- ~ 300 kWh of energy is required to burn a body to ashes.
- The body is prepared by removing any radioactive isotopes (used for cancer treatment), prostheses, silicone implants, and medical devices, which can explode under extreme heat.
- A single body inside a flammable container is then entered into a pre-cremation chamber, similar in construction to a brick oven. Once the incinerator has reached 1500 degrees Fahrenheit, mechanized doors are opened, allowing the wood or cardboard container to enter the main cremation chamber, also called the retort.
- The body is then burned from the torso outward by a jet engine-like column of fire. The body begins to dry, crack, char and vaporize. The bone becomes calcified and crumbles into the white “ash”. Depending on the body mass and bone structure of the deceased, the process takes 2 to 3 hours and results in 3 to 9 pounds of bone ash.
- Chemical cremation involves an accelerated process of alkaline hydrolysis, using lye under heat and pressure to reduce a corpse to disposable liquid and a small amount of dry bone residue or mineral ash.
- The resomation process requires about 90 kWh of electricity, resulting in 1/4 carbon emissions of cremation and consuming 1/8 of the energy, while costing the consumer roughly the same amount as a cremation. (2)
- The body is placed in a silk bag and loaded into a resomator, which is filled with a solution of potassium hydroxide alkali, a strong base that breaks down the corpse into its underlying constituents.
- The solution is heated to a high temperature (±160ºC / 350ºF) under high pressure, which prevents boiling.
- In about three hours, the corpse is effectively dissolved into its chemical components and bone fragments.
- The outcome is a small quantity of DNA-free greenish-brown liquid containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts, as well as soft, porous white bone remains comprised of calcium phosphate. There are no genetic tracers. The effluent liquid is treated and released. Magnets are used to extract any metals from the bone-ash, after which the remaining white-colored dust may be scattered or placed in a repository.
- The process requires 130kWh of electricity, or about one third the energy consumed by cremation. (3)
- FREEZING: The deceased is pre-frozen to zero degrees Fahrenheit (-18˚C). This process takes between 24 and 48 hours.
- METAMORPHOSIS: The frozen body is then placed in a sealed promator where the metamorphosis occurs. Immersed in about 22 gallons (83 liters) of liquid nitrogen (calibrated to body-size), the corpse is further frozen to negative 321 degrees Fahrenheit (-196˚C) and becomes crystallized. After two hours the liquid nitrogen evaporates into the atmosphere as harmless nitrogen gas, which naturally comprises 78% of Earth’s atmosphere.
- VIBRATION: Sixty seconds of ultrasonic vibration reduces the remains to powder. The promessed remains are then passed through a vacuum chamber, where frozen water sublimates and is released as steam. A dry, odorless powder, about thirty percent of the original body weight, is left. Metals or any other foreign substances are selectively separated.
- COMPOSTING: Aerobic composting can further reduce the mass by an additional third of the original. The organic “promains” may be placed in a container made from biodegradable corn or potato starch to be buried in shallow topsoil or scattered for biodegradation and re-absorption into the ecosystem. The small particle size enables oxygen and microorganisms in the topsoil to accelerate organic decomposition, which for an adult corpse will be complete in 6 to 18 months.
- The methane produced by the process can be collected and utilized to produce electricity or employed directly in a biogas heating system.
- The production of biogas or methanogenesis is the natural end result of a three-stage process in the decay and decomposition of biomass, preceded by hydrolysis-liquefaction and acidogenesis.
To transform animal waste into methane through anaerobic digestion, an oxygen-less process breaks down organic matter and converts it to methane, carbon dioxide, and a nutrient-rich effluent. This process can be used as a means of disposing whole animal carcasses and is typically employed in cases of infected livestock, due to digester containment and controllability.
- Similar to the production of biogas from animal remains, human remains may also be rapidly decomposed by anaerobic digestion. Methanogenesis is the dominant method of breaking down organic matter in landfill disposal and is being studied in detail as a means to economically and ecologically reduce many forms of municipal solid waste. When coupled with an anaerobic membrane bioreactor (MBR), it can also be a low-energy alternative to municipal wastewater treatment, allowing the “matter” of the body to have remediative and generative impact. Assuming increased technological efficiency of this energy transfer, the power produced from the corpse ultimately could offset some of the carbon footprint the person created during life. (4)
1 - Statistics compiled from: Casket and Funeral Association of America, Cremation Association of North America, Doric Inc., The Rainforest Action Network, Mary Woodsen, Pre-Posthumous Society, and Hal Stevens, "Cremation or Burial - Carbon Emissions and the Environment."
2 -"Dissolving Dead Bodies: Gross, But Green." [http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/05/09/deadbodies-lye.html] Alkaline hydrolysis has different names given by four providers: BioSAFE Engineering calls it Water Resolution®, Eco-Green Cremation System calls it Natural Cremation, Matthews International, Inc. calls it Bio-cremation or Resomation®, and CycledLife calls it by its official name, alkaline hydrolysis.
3 - Elisabeth Keijzer, “Environmental impact of funerals: Life cycle assessments of activities after life." Master’s Thesis: EES 2011-112 M. University of Groningen, CIO, Center for Isotope Research and IVEM, Center for Energy and Environmental Studies
4 - P. M. Sutton, B. E. Rittmann, O. J. Schraa, J. E. Banaszak and A. P. Togna, "Wastewater as a resource: a unique approach to achieving energy sustainability." Water and Science Technology, 63.9, 2011.
GRAPHIC CONTRIBUTORS: Allison Conley, Jennifer Preston