These days, the options for what to do with our bodies post-mortem are nearly limitless in their number and imagination. Want to be mummified? You got it. Rather become a corpse-powered mushroom farm? Sorted!
But what if you want to dispose of your body in the manner of an ecologically minded supervillain? That, too, is possible, via a process called promession.
Devised by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who spent 20 years developing the concept, promession is an elaborate decomposition system that takes a body, freezes it, vibrates it to dust, and dehydrates it, to create what the inventor claims is the most eco-friendly form of burial ever devised.
Trained as a biologist and with a personal passion for gardening, Wiigh-Mäsak was concerned with what current burial methods are doing to the soil. The best way for organic matter to return to the earth is via natural decomposition processes, like what occurs in your standard compost pile. The materials break down and become a nutrient-rich fertilizer, that in turn keeps the soil healthy so that new plants and animals (and people) can grow, die, and keep that circle of life spinning.
As Wiigh-Mäsak saw it, our non-biodegradable coffins, with their own harmful finishes, kept our bodies from returning naturally to the soil. Even with cremation, she saw the energy used to burn and crush a body as a waste, in addition to the harmful metals that are released into the air during the process. Thus promession was born.
The promession process consists of five distinct parts. The first step is “coffin separation,” in which the body is removed from the coffin it lay in during viewings or funeral services, and placed into the fully-automated “Promator” machine, which processes the corpse. Next, the body is cryogenically frozen using liquid nitrogen, turning it into one big, brittle block of frozen flesh. The target temperature for the frozen body is -196 degrees Celsius (-321 Fahrenheit), at which point the remains should be ready to break apart.
Instead of using traditional methods of pulverization, like the bone-crushing process used for cremation, the Promator then proceeds to shake the frozen body into millimeter-sized chunks. The vibrations supposedly reduce the body to a pile of fine particles in a matter of minutes.
Once the body has been adequately reduced, the pile of remains is freeze dried to remove any excess liquid. At this point, the remains only retain about 30 percent of their initial weight, and bear no resemblance to human tissue.
Then the dried body is run through a process that removes any metals from the remains. This eliminates any potentially harmful minerals that might have survived from a tooth filling, prosthetic, or some other bodily source.
Finally, the cold, dried, de-metaled remains are placed in a biodegradable container made of corn or potato starch. This ultra-green package is then buried in a shallow grave just 30-50 centimeters underground (around a foot to a foot-and-a-half), where it is still in contact with the top soil. Within six to 18 months, the remains have turned into fresh new soil, and the circle of life continues. See a proposal video for the whole process below.
In 1997, Wiigh-Mäsak started Promessa Organic, a company devoted to developing and promoting promession. Since then, Wiigh-Mäsak and Promessa have not quite made it to the stage of performing their process on human bodies, but they have run successful tests on pigs.
Despite the elaborate, strange process and the prohibitive size and probable cost of a Promator machine, the idea of promession as a viable burial alternative has picked up some steam. The Swedish government has looked into legalizing the process as an alternative to cremation. The company has even started a support group called “Promessa Friends” to get the word out and drum up support. So while you might not be placing your loved ones into a Promator tomorrow, maybe one day soon you’ll be able to dispose of a body like Bond villain.