Lug out the guts

Waste management is perhaps a cold-hearted way of regarding the disposal of dead bodies - but when you come down to it, that's what it really is.

We are living through an era when nothing is simply allowed to be thrown away – everything must be recycled, repurposed, reused. The disposal of human corpses is no exception. It has migrated from being something essentially private, almost furtive, and hidden from the gaze of the wider public, into a matter for general discussion. When old Uncle Fred bites the dust there are many options these days beyond burial or cremation; and his death is not simply a matter for his family and friends, but is part of a wider social consideration – how should this individual fleshly shell be got rid of in a way that respects the conventions, yet does not damage the planet or take up yet more landfill space? Ecological ‘usefulness’ is today on everyone’s lips. Whether or not this is a positive change, in the process of disposing of the dead it is a change that has happened almost without anyone noticing – and there is probably no going back.

Rubbish – and what else is a human corpse once you strip away all sentimentality? – never leaves the planet. It just gets dispersed.

This social change is, no doubt, driven by many factors: the apparently inexorable rising cost of funerals, plus shortage of burial space in many places; the concern that cremation, though much cheaper, has its own environmental drawbacks; and the technological advances which mean there are a greater number of alternatives than ever before. Underlying all this is a sense that rubbish – and what else is a human corpse once you strip away all sentimentality? – never leaves the planet. It just gets dispersed.

Corpse waste disposal is a fairly loosely regulated procedure in the UK. The only real consideration is that lugging out the guts (to quote Hamlet after he has killed Polonius) should pose no public health risks. Other than that, you can bury Uncle Fred pretty much wherever you like, so long as you legally own the land. And who is to stop you scattering his ashes along the high street, if you so desire? It’s a bit different elsewhere. In Germany, for example, the law stipulates that dead bodies or their ashes can only be disposed of in authorised locations and by authorised personnel.

If, as Marcus Aurelius wrote, “death is nothing but a dissolving of the elements of which each living being is composed” then it stands to reason that we should take a rather utilitarian view of corpse disposal. Perhaps the greatest innovation in lugging out the guts is alkaline-hydrolysis, which originally was developed in the 1990s to dispose of animal carcasses, but which has started to make inroads into the human funeral business in the US.

In this method of disposal the corpse is put into a stainless steel container, known as a “tissue digester”, measuring about six feet tall by four feet wide and ten feet deep. Into this is pumped potassium hydroxide and water. The powerfully alkaline solution, with a pH of about 14, is heated to 152° C , but because the digester is pressurised it does not boil. Then it’s all cooked and the pressure is raised to the point where the body is reduced to liquid, which can then be recycled at waste-water treatment plants – or used as liquid fertiliser.

The whole process takes about 90 minutes, plus another 90 minutes for a rinse cycle. After a few hours the sealed chamber unlocks itself and any bones left over, or artificial joints, are removed. The liquid apparently smells rather soapy and has the colour of beer. Bone fragments are crushed, while any inorganic matter (dental fillings or metal hip joints for example) can be recycled. The crushed bones resemble flour. In effect what normally takes years by conventional burial takes just a few hours. It’s a moot point however whether or not people will accept drinking water from their taps that has been treated but which nevertheless once contained liquified corpses, or will accept potatoes that have fattened up thanks to liquid corpse fertiliser.

Alkaline-hydrolysis is likely to become the default method of disposal bodies in many parts of the world, simply because we are running out of burial space. It’s reckoned that half of the UK’s existing cemeteries will be full by 2040. In the US the vaults for coffins consumer 1.6 million tons of concrete and 14,000 tons of steel every year. Cremation is very unfriendly to the environment – about 320 kilos of CO2 are released into the atmosphere for each cremation. Over time, we will probably grow to accept the alkaline-hydrolysis method of corpse disposal. After all, cremation was once reviled.

In the end it’s all about marketing. If alkaline hydrolysis can be sold as ‘green’ then it will catch on.

In 1884 the self-styled Druid and well-known Welsh eccentric William Price, a qualified doctor, friend of Karl Marx, and a leader of the Chartist movement, tried to cremate his infant son’s dead body on a hilltop in Llantrisant. Cremation was taboo at the time, and as he was trying to set light to the pyre he was attacked by an angry mob, arrested and put on trial. He successfully argued to the court that, while the law didn’t say cremation was legal, nor did it say it was illegal. Before he died in 1893 his last words were: “Bring me a glass of champagne” which he drank and then expired. In many ways he was ahead of his time: he argued that a lot of doctors were little more than “poison peddlers” who preferred to make money by selling drugs rather than treat the real causes of illness. In 1902 the Cremation Act was passed in the UK, legitimising the practice.

Of course there will be protests against alkaline-hydrolysis. In the US, where 14 states have approved the process, the Roman Catholic church has lobbied against it, helping to block its approval in several states. What’s the basis of its opposition? More a matter of taste, than theology, it seems: “Dissolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resultant liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains” read a 2012 letter from the Catholic Conference of Ohio to the state’s lawmakers.

One can see the point: it might feel to be in very bad taste to just flush Uncle Fred down the toilet. Imagine the funeral scene: gather round a toilet pan, say a prayer maybe, and pull the chain. But a moment’s reflection should tell you otherwise – is it any more ‘respectful’ to put him six feet under the earth in a box, or shove him along a conveyor belt to be burned to ashes? It just takes time for attitudes to catch up with realities – after all, cremation was taboo in the Catholic Church until 1963, when Pope Paul VI ruled that it was not intrinsically evil.

In the end it’s all about marketing. If alkaline hydrolysis can be sold as ‘green’ – and there is every reason it should be – then it will catch on.