A green way to dispose human remains

Stephen Beard Aug 11, 2010

A green way to dispose human remains

Stephen Beard Aug 11, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Cutting carbon emissions, greenhouse gasses, has become a goal that reaches into every corner of life. And now, it seems, death. Six states in this country have approved a new, low-carbon way to dispose of human remains. Resomation is being offered as an alternative to cremation — reducing the body to a mixture of liquid and minerals. Now a group of funeral directors in northern Belgium wants to bring the technology to the European market.

As Stephen Beard reports from Antwerp.

Stephen Beard: In the pleasant, prosperous suburb of Braschaat, undertaker Bruno Quirijnen lets me into his funeral home for a guided tour.

Sound of someone unlocking a door

Briefly shedding his doleful air, Bruno enthusiastically shows off the ceremony hall, a reception chamber and the family viewing rooms.

Bruno Quirijnen: I think this one is empty, yes?

Sound of someone unlocking a door

Quirijnen: So the body is kept in this refrigerated coffin with a glass top.

Bruno is one of the city’s busiest funeral directors — 140 cremations a year, 100 burials. Now, he would like offer his clients what he calls “a third exit” — he wants the authorities to approve resomation.

Quirijnen: The body is placed in a container with water and alkaline, and under pressure, the body dissolves so there is a lot less energy necessary and there is no carbon exhaust or no dusts.

The process was developed by a Scottish firm. With zero carbon emissions and using seven times less energy than cremation, this — says Bruno — would make for the greenest of funerals. And it shouldn’t upset the neighbors.

Quirijnen: People don’t like to have chimneys in their backyard. So with resomation, you don’t have that problem. It’s very natural and it’s more eco-friendly.

But the process seems to be meeting some stiff resistance here in Antwerp.

Cathedral bells ringing

The bell of the Roman Catholic cathedral tolls funereally across the city. Some traditional Catholics object to resomation through religious feeling, but many people recoil from it for other reasons. Resomation produces a kind of powder, which can be tastefully placed in an urn and given to the bereaved. But it also leaves a fluid — and that, it has been suggested, might be washed down the drain. That doesn’t go down well on the streets of Antwerp.

Man 1: Into the sewers?!

Beard: Yes.

Man 1: Oh no, no, no, no. That cannot be.

Beard: You wouldn’t approve of that?

Man 1: Oh no, no, no.

Woman 1: I’m for cremation. I think it’s better, it’s faster, it’s cleaner.

Man 2: I don’t like it. It’s not so… No. Not to be dissolved in a liquid or something like that, no. I don’t see it as a good solution.

Advocates of resomation say the liquid remains contain no DNA, and therefore, there’s no disrespect however it’s disposed of. But Flanders still seems unlikely to become an early adopter for economic reasons.

Sound of a church choir singing

Funeral services like this are handled by funeral homes, but it’s the regional government in Flanders that carries out all cremations. The government took control of the sector five years ago and, says Belgium’s leading undertaker Johan Dexters, it has good reason to stand in the way of this technological progress.

Johan Dexters: I don’t think the Belgian or the Flanders government will be ready today to accept new procedures, because they have already invested so much in new crematoria.

He says the Flanders government will fight to preserve its monopoly. It’s likely the first resomations will happen in the United States.

In Antwerp, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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