Saturday, July 14, 2012

Promession: A Return to the Living Soil


Susanne Wiight-Mäsak of Promessa AB Promessa Organic AB of Sweden is developing a new method of disposition for the dead called 'promession'. Promession is described as an environmentally friendly form of burial, and could in fact be the greenest of green disposition options. In addition to its green credentials, promession is offered as a more ethical option than cremation or burial. Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, biologist and head of operations at Promessa Organic AB recently gave a very interesting and inspiring presentation at the 90th annual convention of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) and agreed to discuss promession with me for this post.
The process of promession involves a promator, freezing human remains in liquid nitrogen (a byproduct of the compressed oxygen produced already for medical purposes.) Once frozen, the casket and remains are agitated with a shaking motion from a table below them, causing them to shatter into tiny pieces. These pieces are then freeze dried to remove all the moisture from them. Metals are then separated, and after being laid in a biodegradable coffin can be buried, returning all the nutritious components to the soil.
I asked Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak how she came to develop this process. She is both a biologist, and an engineer, and has been keenly interested in gardening and science since youth. A special interest has been composting, and she is careful to point out the difference between decomposition and rotting. According to Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak, proper composting involves decomposition, which requires the same conditions that sustain life: air, proper moisture and proper temperature. These conditions allow for a substance to break down to the nutrient level that can replenish the earth's living soil, and are necessary for enzymes and microorganisms to do their work as well. The alternative to decomposition, says Wiigh-Mäsak, is rotting. Rotting occurs when the remains are too large for the air and soil to act upon their surface readily enough to break down in a positive manner. In the case of rot, the body's substances return to the earth, but not in a form that is enriching and replenishing to the living soil.
Because of her deep interest in composting, Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak was struck by the idea that kitchen scraps are treated with more reverence than the bodies of our loved ones. The nutrients of an apple core, that have been taken from the earth, can be returned to it through proper composting techniques, but the six and a half billion human bodies that have drawn life from the living soil are destined to burn off, rot away or lock away their nutrients, rather than return them in a positive way to the earth.
1. The corpse is frozen down to -18 °C.

2. The coffin with the deceased is lowered into liquid nitrogen. The body becomes very firm and brittle.
3. The coffin and the body are exposed to a light vibration, disintegrating into dust.
4. Mercury and other metals are separated using an induced magnetic field.

5. 25 - 30 kg of the powder now remains. This is put into a coffin made from maize starch or potato starch.

6. The starch coffin is buried shallowly and will turn into compost in 6 - 12 months' time. A tree can be planted on the grave. It will then absorb the nutrients given off.

Combining her interests in biology and engineering Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak developed the promession concept. She argues that this process in essential for the health of the living soil as well as an appealing and respectful disposition of the dead. According to Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak, even direct burial in a shroud is not as positive for the earth because the mass of the body, and the amount of moisture left in it prevents proper decomposition and results in rotting. What is truly different about promession is the process whereby the body is broken down to a point where the proper composting and a positive return to the living soil is accomplished.
Ms. Wiigh-Mäsak describes the actual physical process of promession to be something that is appealing to witness, a process that even a small child could watch and not be disturbed or frightened.

Susanne Wiight-Mäsak of Promessa AB
So, how far away are we from having promession as an option to choose from? Promessa is currently preparing for operations in South Korea, where laws have been passed to allow for this form of disposition, and promession has been embraced by the Christian Church there. Sweden is also getting closer to allowing promession as an option. Leaders of many religious denominations have determined that promession is consistent with the tenets of their faith. As far as the future of promession in North America, laws must be passed to allow for promession, and Promessa is currently in the process of selecting licensees and promession providers.

For more information on Promessa AB and promession visit the web site at


Anonymous said...

I certainly hope promession is available in the US before I have a need for it. I don't want to be buried any other way!

Anonymous said...

Do we have any idea about what happens to HCHO in Promession?

Patrick McNally said...

That's a good question. I don't think that there have been any tests of that yet, and from my conversations with Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak, I know that she doesn't like the idea of embalming, but to my thinking, embalming and promession could go together well.
Even if any small amounts of HCHO- formaldehyde were left intact after the promession, I would imagine that it would evaporate pretty quickly.
I would be interested to hear from any chemists on this subject!

Anonymous said...

I agree that embalming and promession could be a very happy marriage philosophically. I would like to understand how HCHO reacts to the cold.

Anonymous said...

Has any reader had experience with AARDBalm?
This may be one of the answers to the promession/embalming dilemma.

Anonymous said...

HCHO is the least of our worries
what about Prions (mad cow) (CJD)

Connie said...

I like the idea of promession, but I'd like my remains to go into the ocean, in a form that would make them fish food. Would that be possible with promession, or would I need to try some other method?

Patrick McNally said...

Connie, That's an interesting question. I'll see if Ms.Wiigh-Mäsak has an answer. Stay tuned.

Patrick McNally said...

Here is a response from Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak regarding the sea burial question. Thanks Susanne for your quick response and thoughtful reply!

"The fact is that it could be very possible to use Promession if you wanted to be fish food as your reader ask for.
The remains that are left after the promator are just reshaped, metal free and dry. Everything that was the person is still there.
These remains have to be looked upon as a body, though, they are not broken down. The biodegrading is supposed to happen in the soil, in a casket made for this purpose.

Any where that you are not able or allowed to lower a whole body into the sea you will probably not be able to place promated remains.
I would probably have supported it in limited areas if I was to give permission, but I know that it would be extremely hard to regulate. That is why we will not accept any other handling procedure than a coffin going into the soil. If you want a sea burial you have to cremate the remains after the promator to get uncritical, degraded ashes which are totally accepted in most places to spread. Ashes are not food for fishes as fire has already broken it down. This reader wants the fishes to do the breaking down, not the soil or the fire.
The problem with that is, if it should be something that is done here and there, then the rest of the population will probably protest or stop eating fish.
It is important to treat the remains and the earth with respect. Perhaps it is a bit hard for me to write about it in a language that is not my own but I hope that it is possible to understand anyway."

merentia said...

One think is not clear for me concerning promession,the place that we bury the promains.In the case that the promains are buried in cemeteries how this could be an advantage over traditional burials?,i mean if we use cemeteries again we will be facing the problem of occupying valuable land
best regards

Anonymous said...

quisiera saber si en España esta regulado?

Tony Hitchcock said...
Aardbalm - New Zealand distributor page.....
Answers abound. Questions remain.

Unknown said...

Call me a Luddite, but I'm not convinced, but it's not my problem or choice. I don't opt for cremation, either. Personally, I'm more in the sky-burial group.

That being said, my problem with promession (who came up with that name?) is the same as with cremation, it encourages loss of memorialization. I think memorialization is important for the continuity of a culture, ours, for example. I worry about the loss of memorialization. The same can be said for green burials and GPS locating. Doesn't work for me and I don't think works for the culture. Planting trees is all well and good, but it says nothing like a marker, especially handmade. But that's my aesthetic.

Test tube babies and promession: are we that far from Soylent Green? Ah, but the future is interesting.

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