Green Burial: How to Turn a Human Body Into Compost

Photo: claudia_dias/Flickr.

If you think that being buried six feet under in a wooden casket is an eco-friendly, organic and natural way to go, think again.

Not only do casket burials prevent a corpse from decomposing quickly and efficiently, but the slow rotting process also favors sulfur-loving bacteria that can harm nearby water sources. And if you're green-minded, you don't even want to consider cremation. The fossil fuels burned in the process can leave an embarrassing carbon footprint behind.

So what's the future corpse of an environmentalist to do? That's where a Swedish company called Promessa Organic AB can be helpful, reports Promessa's founder, biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, has developed a new, unusual and ecological way of burying a human corpse: freeze-dry it, shatter the brittle corpse into white powder, then compost.

The breakthrough process takes only about six to 12 months to transform a dead body into high-nutrient compost. Here's how it works: A corpse is first frozen to -18°C (0°F) and then submerged in liquid nitrogen. Then the frozen, brittle corpse is gently bombarded with sound waves, which break it down into a fine white powder. That powder is then sent through a vacuum chamber that evaporates all the water.

Since water makes up about 70 percent of an adult human body, the mass of the powdery corpse becomes greatly decreased. Also, if the powder is kept dry, it will not decompose. This erases the need for a speedy burial or funeral service, and it preserves the corpse without the need for any unnatural chemicals like embalming fluids.

When it does come time for a burial, the powder can then be placed in a box of biodegradable material like corn starch and buried in a shallow grave. The mixture will create nutritious, fertile soil, perfect for planting a tree, bush or garden, depending on the desires of the next of kin.

It may not be the traditional way of burying a body, but as the Promessa website suggests, this process "can instill greater insight in and respect for the ecological cycle, of which every living thing is a part. The plant stands as a symbol of the person, and we understand where the body went."

The company is currently building the world's first facility to offer this unique ecological burial service. Called a "Promatorium," it should open in Sweden sometime in the spring of 2011. Wiigh-Mäsak also hopes to soon expand internationally, to the U.K. and South Korea.