Friday, May 9, 2008

When Cremation Isn't Gross Enough

How much thought have you given to what will become of your corpse?

Oh sure, sure, we try not to think about such things. Death is a thing better not dwelled upon. But let's face reality. Eventually we're all worm food, in one form or another.

My paternal grandma was convinced that burial was the only option. A thoroughly religious and superstitious woman (is there really any difference between the two?), she believed that cremation was the Devil's work, that somehow by being cremated you were inviting eternal damnation in a lake of fire. Of course, she also believed that having a beard meant that you were hiding something, and she always distrusted daylight savings time so much that she kept at least one clock with "the correct time" all year round. I loved her dearly, but you have to admit she was eccentric. What would she think of me now, I wonder, being an atheist, an advocator of cremation, hairy like a rat, and adhering to that daylight savings time conspiracy?

Yes, Grandma thought a lot about her corpse. She had everything arranged. The cemetery plot was purchased, and she visited it now and then. She had purchased a headstone (unfinished, of course). She even had a funeral home on stand-by. It was that way throughout my youth, and she reminded me of it often. If she could have dug the grave ahead of time, she would have.

It's good to be prepared.

Personally, I'd prefer my body be laid out in state, with thousands of mourners shuffling by to look at my handsome face, then be buried in a massive and overly-expensive granite tomb with my most famous quotes chiseled into the side of it…. But since that isn't likely to happen, I guess I'll just donate my organs and have the rest of me cremated. (Lake of fire! Lake of fire!)

Of course, there are other options to burial and cremation. There's the ancient and (thankfully) extinct Native American practice (in some areas) of simply putting the body up on a wooden platform to rot in the wind, or the Tibetan practice of chopping off the limbs and tossing them to the winds for vultures to feed on, or (my favorite), the Viking burial in a burning ship at sea (now that's a way to go!).

Now there's a new option: Dissolving your body in lye:;_ylt=AhxAi5B3goY5EidSQI1hMoSs0NUE

Yes, that's right. Dissolving corpses is no longer reserved for lunatic murderers. Now a couple of medical centers (The University of Florida in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.) are using a special "pressure cooker" filled with lye, at 300 degrees F and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch, to literally dissolve the body away – a process known to chemists as alkaline hydrolysis, which has been used for years for disposal of medical waste and dead animals. Now a New Hampshire mortuary is wanting to buy one of those "pressure cooker" tanks.

The resultant human-goo is a "coffee-colored liquid [that] has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell." Umm, appetizing! Need a cup of java, anyone? This liquid, which is now sterilized, is then poured down the drain.

I repeat: poured down the drain.

So if you're living in Gainesville or Rochester, give that water of yours another sniff, eh? If you drink it, does that count as cannibalism?

This whole body-processing thing dredges up visions of Charlton Heston running through the streets of a crowded, dystopic future New York yelling, "Soylent Green is made of people! People!"

Personally, I'm not as horrified by this rather macabre method as I thought I would be. I'd be dead, after all. It's technically sanitary, doesn't fill up otherwise wonderful sunny meadows with depressing graves for ghosts to putter around in, and you don't have to find a place in the rose garden for your Cousin Ralph's ashes. Just fill the pressure cooker, insert the lye, press a button and Voila!, your beloved is turned into gravy. Just be sure to flush twice.

And as for my Grandma, she died at a ripe old age, and she got the burial she always imagined for herself, in that grave she had prepared, and with the gravestone she'd bought so far ahead. But we deviated in one minor way from her well-laid plans. She had wanted a closed casket, believing herself too ugly to view. But I have to say, when I viewed her laying there, she was more radiant and beautiful than I had ever seen her in life. You can't get that with alkaline hydrolysis.

AP photo taken from HERE.


Sparkling Red said...

So that dark goo from The Matrix actually exists? That blows my mind.

Tantalus Prime said...

I've wondered what to think about this myself. It took me a while to get over the idea of cremation (because it seems so final; not that the finality hasn't already been determined) and was now finding myself leaning more toward a green burial. I just want to use up as little resources as necessary in my post mortem life, as it just seems so wasteful.

Of course the best way to use the least amount of resources, which I have often entertained, is to, with clear mind and forethought, simply wander off to the woods one day and plan never to return. However, our mondern day society tends not to let people do that sort of thing.

(And yes I do realize that I split that infinitive in the earlier sentence not once but twice.)

Anonymous said...

great post. I would love to follow you on twitter.