Promession: Turning bodies into soil

The decomposition of the human body is merely seen as a fact of life and the natural process of death. However, promession, a developing kind of burial, looks at how nature can and should make use of this occurrence to continue to give life, SHEKINA TUAHENE explores.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is a phrase commonly uttered at funerals and burials and signifies the human body’s return to the state in which the Christian belief claims it was once made from. There is no dispute that no matter how the human body is buried, it will eventually decompose but when it comes to traditionally used burial methods, it is not always the case that the remains of the deceased returns to being at one with the earth, in the same way some religions and doctrines envision.

The idea of using human remains to enrich soil is nothing novel but outside of scattering ashes or mixing them with compost, it is not something that is habitually done or thought about by the families of those who have passed away. Promession is a burial method which utilises remains specifically for this purpose and incorporates it in its practice, turning the bodies of those who have passed into soil for the earth. Founded by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, non-profit organisation Promessa Organic developed this patented biological concept of burial.

Susanne spent 15 years as an environmental engineer before discovering a passion for gardening and composting. In a Ted Talk held in St Helier discussing promession in 2014, she claimed that “composting is one of the most misused words”, alluding to her organic lifestyle and diet, the biologist then went on to say that this prompted her to explore the true cycle of organic life and what nutrients were best for soil. She said: “We need to mimic nature and understand its processes.”

Disputing the commonly held belief that all things organic are pure, Susanne stresses that any process that originates from plants and contains carbon is organic – including petrol and plastics. However, it is up to humans to find out the cleanest way to make use of organic procedures. With this in mind, the former owner of an organic shop, mulled over how her own body would and should be taken care of once she died in a way that was orderly and kind to nature, concluding that an organic and healthy biodegradation should be “quick and non-smelling”.

“We need to mimic nature and understand its processes.”

Touching on what happens to any being which has passed away, Susanne points out that nature has just three options when it comes to the disposal of a corpse: soil production, the rotting process (burial) or burning (cremation). However, wildlife does not typically use burial or burning to dispose of corpses as often as humans do but instead, relies on the natural soil production process and uses that to give back to the environment.

Susanne explains: “We live and work close to nature and I noticed that my way of treating dead organic material was not used in the burials, so I came up with this more sustainable method.” As Susanne describes it, promession is an ecological alternative to other commonly used burial or cremation methods, claiming that no “harmful or toxic outlets occur” during the process, nor are there any emissions of damaging gases.

Once the idea was in her mind, to find out more about the general attitude to the process she was developing, Susanne conducted a survey over the span of two years with 1000 people, asking what they thought of the specific use of corpses for soil production. Of the 1000 people, only two said they didn’t like the idea.

Promessa Organic was officially established in 2005 and the company now has 20 representatives in 96 countries across the world, including Spain, Holland, USA and Chile who all have a goal of educating those around the world about the technique and its benefits. The process and equipment used – the Promator – is currently believed to be the only one of its kind. So far, the process has been tested on full-sized dead pigs and there have been attempts made by the government and the church to introduce the promession method into Swedish law. Also, the company’s Spanish representative is working towards developing Promessa’s first Promatorium in the country.

As well as introducing promession to the world and educating others on it, Promessa Organic has a 3,812 strong network of Promessa Friends who support the organisation, want to learn more about the process as it develops and see it widely used. Many of those ‘friends’ are also in the funeral sector themselves.

Describing the system, Susanne says, “The technical ​equipment, the Promator, will ​prepare the body to become soil​, and once introduced to the living topsoil in a biodegradable coffin, biology takes over, as nature intended.”

“Death isn’t the final end, it’s beginning to start”

Step by step, promession works by freezing and crystallising the body in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°c, a method already seen with cryogenics. Unlike cryogenics, this is not where promession ends – with an aim of preserving the body in a perfect state hoping to see the deceased thawed and returning to life at some point in the future. However while different, the method has a similar connotation as Susanne says that putting a body through promession means that “death isn’t the final end, it’s beginning to start”. The frozen particles are then vibrated on a base to disintegrate the figure, a step which takes a matter of minutes. Next, particles are freeze-dried and all the water and moisture is removed from the remains using supplementation done in a vacuum process in a dry machine. The particles are then filtered separating mercury, sodium, metals and up to 50 other foreign substances from the remains, limiting the opportunity for left behind minerals in the body to pollute the air or earth after burial. Once the particles are fully prepared, the remains are sealed in a biodegradable corn or potato starch coffin box which has a composition that is used to control air, water and microorganisms. It is then buried in a shallow grave just 12 to 20 inches underground at a site according to the deceased or their loved one’s request. After a period of roughly six months, the remains then become fertile, enriching the soil it is buried in and making way for new plant growth.

Continuing with the theme of mirroring nature, the breaking down of the bodies in preparation for soil usage is said to be what happens in the wild and promession is simply replacing the role of animals. Generally corpses will be devoured by others in the wild, consuming whatever is edible and useful to the creatures. Once they have taken what they need, the remainder – the degenerated corpse – has been broken down and in small enough pieces to permeate the ground, become nourishing for the soil and promote growth thus bringing about new life.

Susanne Wiigh MŠsak, Promessa.

The natural method, which Susanne considers as being the possible “true meaning of life after death” is described by the founder in its emulated form as being an “improved burial”, saying it “fulfills the liturgical statement and promise ‘from dust to dust’ in reality”. She says: “The carbon in our bodies will be sequestrated in the soil, while we nourish a plant.​ The preparation in the Promator is imitating the way nature works, but in a more dignified way.” She adds: “It means that we are only contributing with our remains and, ​as a bonus,​ we can support new life.”

The breaking down of the bodies in preparation for soil usage is said to be what happens in the wild and promession is simply replacing the role of animals.

For most people facing death, deciding what happens to bodies after they have passed is not always about what is most convenient and helpful to the earth but rather, how sentimental the burial process is to themselves and those left behind. Some still prefer the idea of being able to scatter their ashes or those of their loved ones for personal reasons but the initial method of promession doesn’t allow this to happen successfully because although small, the disintegrated pieces would still be considered food in the wild, eliminating the dignified aspect to the burial. Susanne responded to the desire for cremation with a compact cremator which follows a similar process to promession, but allows for scattering of ashes. The cremator is also ecologically sound as it controls the burning process and releases 300kHw of energy per hour instead of consuming it. As well this, it is the only system which produces total serum mercury.

Because of the symbolic message behind promession, those in the Promessa community have let Susanne know that discussing what happens to a body after a person has passed and how that can go on to benefit new life has made it easier for them to “talk about and think of how they wish to be treated” after death. Surprisingly, and possibly a paradigm to the general feeling towards death, Susanne has had people hail the idea of promession as “appealing”.

Extending the importance of nourishing nature, Promessa Soil, another branch of the organisation, works to improve soil quality in parks and graveyards, and educates staff on how to avoid synthetic fertilizers and toxins and improve the quality of the soil they use.

Admitting that it will take some time for the sector to adopt new practices, promession is always evolving and with its representatives around the world continuing to educate their respective countries, Susanne and the organisation’s friends are looking forward to a time when it is being widely recognised and used. “We will always continue to develop, it is an ongoing process.”

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