cremation Eco-Death

Nuts and Bolts! Nuts and Bolts! Dead Bodies Rule!

The Afterlife of Artificial Hips and Knees
Clark Boyd and Rob Hugh-Jones
PRI’s The World via BBC News (February 21, 2012)
The metal used in surgical implants can be melted down and recycled after people are cremated, and these days it often is.

Long time readers of the Death Reference Desk might remember this August 2009(!) post: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle – the Dead… I mention this particular post because the BBC News and PRI’s The World radio programme just did a piece on a Dutch company that recycles metal implants used in humans.

Here’s the rub: the metal implants are recycled after an individual is cremated.

In all honesty, there isn’t much new about this technology but since the process involves dead bodies it is always fascinating.

Indeed, if you would like a full rundown on everything Eco-Death then click away. We’ve been covering this topic since Death Ref took its first humble steps.Hip Joint

There isn’t a ton of money to be made in postmortem-human-implant-metal-recycling but that is probably ok.

And who knows where the implant metal recycling market will lead. I am keeping my eye on a Detroit, MI company, Implant Recycling, in the hopes that one day Motor City will rise again by cornering the market.

That particular Renaissance would be only too fitting.

cremation Death + the Economy

More Americans Choosing Cremation to Save Money

In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money
Kevin Sack, The New York Times (December 09, 2011)
If current American trends hold, in 2017, more bodies will be cremated than buried, and funeral directors say the cost is a major factor in the decision.

When the Death Reference Desk started in July 2009, we immediately began discussing death, dying, the dead body and the economy. You can read all of those posts in the Death + the Economy section. I mention these pieces on the postmortem economy (for lack of a better term) since most of the articles tell, and then eventually re-tell, the same story. The New York Times, as one example, has repeatedly run articles with the same basic lead: overall funeral costs have gotten so high that many Americans are choosing cremation instead of burial to save money.


The wider socio-economic picture is complicated but on the whole this analysis is correct. What makes this particular New York Times article slightly different than its progenitors is the focus on how different communities make funeral choices based on costs. The article discusses how African-Americans in parts of Virginia historically resisted cremation since it suggested poverty. There are some significant religious reasons involved too, i.e., a long tradition of the Black Church funeral complete with a burial.

The shift towards cremation for American funerals will not change. Indeed, it appears that more Americans than not will be choosing cremation in the very near future.

cremation Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture Eco-Death Monuments + Memorials

Praise the Lord and Pass the Cremated Remains Filled Ammunition

Holy Smoke
Planning a loved ones final arrangements can be a challenging responsibility, one you want to do with care and consideration. Allow Holy Smoke to help you create a tribute to your outdoorsman or woman like no other.

So yeah. I had heard about people loading ammunition with human cremated remains and then shooting the ammo but I did not know, until this week, that a company would do it for you.

And based on the reaction of my British friends (I live in England), many people still do not believe it is possible. And/or, the loading of live gun ammunition with human cremated remains is a distinctly American form of memorialization. Not unlike spelling memorialization with a ‘z’ instead of an ‘s’.

Take that Red Coats!

But I digress.

Here at the Death Reference Desk we believe in presenting the full monty when it comes to contemporary forms of postmortem memorials. So a company such as Holy Smoke is due some respect for combining two of America’s great past times: shooting bullets and capitalism. Not necessarily in that order.

But lo, what might you receive when purchasing Holy Smoke’s ammo? Well, their website explains:

Once the caliber, gauge and other ammunition parameters have been selected, we will ask you (by way of your funeral service provider) to send approximately one pound of the decedents ash to us. Upon receiving the ashes our professional and reverent staff will place a measured portion of ash into each shotshell or cartridge. (Please note that our process uses only a portion of the ash from a typical cremation.)


Example: 1 Pound of ash is enough to produce 250 shotshells (one case).

Now, I’m not a gun person (even though I grew up in the great state of Wisconsin) so 250 shotgun shells sounds like a lot of ammo. I can’t imagine firing a gun 250 times to remember a person I loved.

Unless, of course, you’re using the Holy Smoke ammunition to defend the human race against the imminent Zombie Apocalypse!

Burial Cemeteries cremation Death + Technology Eco-Death

Dead Body and Technology Lecture Tuesday April 19

Future Death: The Dead Human Body as Biomass
An Illustrated lecture with Dr. John Troyer
Deputy Director
Centre for Death and Society
University of Bath
Tuesday, April 19 at 8:00pm

Hello Death Reference Desk readers. Next Tuesday, April 19 I am giving a talk in Brooklyn, New York for the Observatory group and the Morbid Anatomy Library. My good friend Joanna Ebenstein runs the Morbid Anatomy Library and she is the hippest, coolest, pathological anatomical specimen collector you will ever meet.

Next Tuesday’s talk is on research that I am doing about new(ish) forms of dead body disposal. These newer postmortem technologies will most certainly become more prevalent in the future and I will discuss their impact on the dead body.

Nothing says HOT HOT TUESDAY NIGHT to me like pictures of new machines which dissolve dead bodies.

Here is a full description for the talk.

Please check it out if you can.

Future Death: The Dead Human Body as Biomass

An Illustrated lecture with Dr. John Troyer
Deputy Director
Centre for Death and Society
University of Bath

Date: Tuesday April 19th
Time: 8:00
Admission: $5


As people become more and more interested in the environmental impacts of their daily lives, some individuals are asking: How green is death? What are the environmental impacts associated with handling the dead body? Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director at the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, England, will discuss the environmental issues which surround current post-mortem options, from burial to cremation to biomass tissue digestion. Dr. Troyer will discuss new research exploring how heat-capture technology currently used at the Haycombe Crematorium in Bath reduces both mercury emissions and offers a potentially viable energy source for the local community.

Soylent Green isn’t just people. It’s now.

Cemeteries cremation Death + Technology Eco-Death Funeral Industry

The Ultimate in Going Green: New Research into Postmortem Options with John Troyer

Crematorium to Keep Mourners Warm by Burning Bodies of Loved Ones
The Daily Mail (January 08, 2008)


Eco-Death Articles and Information
Put Together by The Death Reference Desk Cadaver Team (Meg, Kim, and John)

So in January 2008, I read an article in the UK’s Daily Mail about a Manchester crematorium that captured its heat exhaust, filtered out mercury and other problematic materials, and then re-used the heat for keeping the attached chapel warm. The Daily Mail is a notoriously scandal mongering tabloid so it was clear that this story was supposed to cause some kind of outrage. The problem for the Mail was this: no one complained about what the crematorium was doing and, more importantly, people really liked the idea.

I read this article while I was still living in America and well before I knew that I would end up working for the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath.

But then I got my current job at the University of Bath and one of the first things I did was start a project which examined how Bath’s local crematorium, Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium, used heat capture technology.

This is a drastically shortened version of a story which has taken me on postmortem adventures that I never imagined.

So on December 21, 2010 at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theatre in Minneapolis I am giving a talk about these adventures along with a broader look at the topic of ecologically friendly forms of final disposition.

Or, finding a greener shade of death.

The Bell Museum of Natural History’s Cafe Scientifique program is presenting the talk and I am extremely honored by this fact. Here is the official announcement:

The Ultimate in Going Green: New Research into Postmortem Options
Consumers are increasingly interested in the environmental impact of their personal choices, including their own end of life decisions. John Troyer, Deputy Director of the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society, will discuss the environmental impact of traditional burial and cremation practices, as well as new research into crematorium heat-capture technology which eliminates both mercury emissions and offers a potentially viable energy source.


Doors open at 6 p.m.
Food and Drink Available for Purchase
Tickets: $5-$12 Pay what you can
Call 612-825-8949 for reservations



John Troyer received his doctorate from the University of Minnesota in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society in May 2006. His Ph.D. dissertation, entitled “Technologies of the Human Corpse,” was awarded the University of Minnesota’s 2006 Best Dissertation Award in the Arts and Humanities. From 2007-2008 he was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University teaching the cultural studies of science and technology. John is currently the Deputy Director and Death and Dying Practices Associate for the University of Bath’s Centre for Death and Society. Within the field of Death Studies, he analyzes the global history of science and technology and its effects on the dead body. He is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Death Reference Desk website (, a frequent commentator for the BBC, and his first book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2012.

The University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society is the UK’s only centre devoted to the study and research of social aspects of death, dying and bereavement. It provides a centre for the social study of death, dying and bereavement and acts as a catalyst and facilitator for research, education and training, policy development, media, and community awareness.



The Bell Museum’s Café Scientifique is a program for adults that brings research from the University of Minnesota and beyond into some of the Twin Cities’ most unique and atmospheric bars and restaurants. The Bell Museum’s Café Scientifique explores science and natural history from distinct and surprising viewpoints, drawing connections between scientific research, culture, environment and everyday life.

Café Scientifique is co-sponsored by the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

The Bell Museum of Natural History

cremation Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Monuments + Memorials

If Cremated Human Remains Can’t Go In It Then You Don’t Need It

Company Presses Your Ashes Into Vinyl When You Die
Olivia Solon, Wired (August 27, 2010)

Many many people saw this Wired article on human cremains being mixed into vinyl records when it first popped up two weeks ago. I know that many people saw this article because everyone kept sending it to me and/or asking me about it. Then a Death Reference Desk Facebook “liker” put it on the Wall of Death, which meant that I had to do something other than just report this story. Our readers keep us on our toes.

After mulling over various story angles I realized that the most interesting thing to point out was this: Mixing cremated human remains into ANYTHING to produce an object of some kind which is then kept as a memorial isn’t new. In fact, Meg, Kim and I have been discussing the myriad ways human cremains get used since day one of Death Ref. You can read those posts here.

I was even in New York this summer giving a lecture on people who have cremated remains put into their Memorial Tattoos. The Comments Section for one of our Memorial Tattoo postings has morphed into a Q and A area for people who want to use created remains in a tattoo. I’m mentioning the tattoos and cremated remains because I know that people are fascinated by the concept.

So what And Vinyl is offering to do with cremated remains isn’t all that new but it is cool. The only problem that I have with the concept is this: I have no idea what record album I would choose and/or combination of songs. I’ve been thinking and thinking but I can’t come up with the perfect mix.

Anyway, the human-ash-pressed-into-vinyl story got me thinking about some of the other ways cremated remains are used to produce objects. These are just the ones I know about and could find. I even looked for companies putting cremated remains into glass bongs but I couldn’t find any. That said, I bet the entire cost of a Life Gem (please see below) that someone, somewhere is turning grandma’s ashes into a sweeeeeeeet smoker.

So, in no particular order we have:

Life Gem rings.

Customized Pencils

Ashes into Glass bowls, paperweights, and other designs.

Urns which look like YOUR HEAD.

Ashes which go into Space

Eternal Reefs and cremated remains in the ocean.

Fireworks which give ashes that rockets red glare feel.

Ashes into Art, which is similar to the Memorial Tattoos.

Huggable Urns in the shape of Teddy Bears. Wowza.

Hourglasses because like the sands….oh nevermind.

And remember: Most of these options also work for Pets. So that means you can have your pets’ created remains turned into a semi-precious stone, a memorial reef, and blasted into space.

I don’t know about the Head Urn but maybe.

cremation Death + Art / Architecture Monuments + Memorials

Morbid Ink: Lecture on Memorial Tattoos by John Troyer

Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo
An Illustrated Lecture with Dr. John Troyer, Deputy Director, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
Date: Tuesday July 20th, 2010
Time: 8:00pm
Admission: $5

On Tuesday, July 20 I am giving a talk in Brooklyn on memorial tattoos. The talk, Morbid Ink: Field Notes on the Human Memorial Tattoo, focuses on research that I have been doing for a number of years. Many thanks to Joanna Ebenstein who runs the Morbid Anatomy Library for inviting me to speak.

The academic side of this research has really only taken place during the last year. But the tattoo side of my work started in 1994 when I got my first memorial tattoo for my maternal grandfather. Since 1994, I have gotten a tattoo for each of my grandparents, in the order of their deaths, down my spine. I went to the same tattoo artist for each of the tattoos, Awen Briem, and you can see her work at her studio Art With a Point. In 2008, I got tattoos for both my parents (who are still alive) as a way of honoring them before they die. Each of these tattoos is a 1/4 long sleeve down both my left and right arms. Awen did an amazing job with these tattoos too.

All of this is to say that I have spent hours and hours (and more hours…) thinking and talking with Awen about why people get tattoos. It became apparent, based purely on Awen’s anecdotes, that memorial tattoos were becoming more and more common. In case you are looking for a definition, the Memorial Tattoo is most easily described as a tattoo which a person gets after someone they know dies. The deceased can be a good friend, a spouse, sibling, lover, etc. Now, the memorial tattoo can also be for a dead pet and I see this kind of tattoo more and more. Indeed, Awen ran some numbers and roughly 50% of her memorial tattoos are for pets. This all makes sense to me since pets became a companion species for humans long ago.

The talk on July 20th will discuss a variety of issues which I think memorial tattoos produce. Some of these issues include how meaning is assigned to a memorial tattoo, what marking a living body with representations of death entails, and current innovations in memorial tattooing.

I will also talk about the strange and peculiar avenues this particular research interest has taken me down. My favorite example is that the Death Reference Desk has itself become part of my research.

Last July, I posted an article on Death Ref about a gentleman who got cremated human remains mixed into the ink used for a memorial tattoo. As a result of that post, the Death Reference Desk has started receiving questions about the ins and outs of mixing cremated remains into tattoo ink.


And since Death Ref has always functioned as a reference desk, Meg, Kim and myself have responded to all the queries. Meg, in particular, has gone to great lengths to answer these questions and those responses are still available here: Using Cremains in Memorial Tattoos. You can also find more on memorial tattoos here.

It turns out that quite a few people have thought about/are thinking about mixing a pinch of human ash (almost always from the deceased) into the ink being used for a specific memorial tattoo.

I’m not surprised in the least. Within the logic of why people get memorial tattoos, it makes complete sense.

If you are in the Brooklyn area Tuesday and/or know someone who is, then send them to the Morbid Anatomy Library at 543 Union Street, Brooklyn, New York 11215 for the talk.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry

Humans and Pets Cremating Together

Cremation Association of North America (CANA) and International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC) Announce new Guidelines for Pet Cremation
Press Release, March 2010

Pet cremation is big business for human funeral homes looking to branch out into other industries. And normally I wouldn’t just trot out a press release for a Death Reference Desk post but this newly announce initiative about human and pet cremation groups coming together to produce guidelines really intrigued me.

Chicago, IL – The Cremation Association of North America (CANA), an international organization composed of cremationists, funeral directors, cemeterians, industry suppliers and consultants, and the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, an international organization recognized as the authority in the pet aftercare industry, have been working together to develop industry guidelines for pet cremation practices.

The Press Release has two quote from each organization:

“There has been significant growth in pet cremation over that past ten years as families seek ways to appropriately memorialize a cherished pet,” said IAOPCC President Scott Hunter, “and at the same time owners want reassurance that the cremation facilities they use provide high quality services for their pets. By working with the Cremation Association of North America, we seek to establish standard industry terminology and practices for the proper respectful care of pets in memorial services.”


CANA President Bill McQueen noted, “As the premiere organization focused on all aspects of cremation service, CANA has been pleased to work with the IAOPCC to extend our knowledge and experience into developing broad-based guidelines for pet cremation. CANA’s highly regarded crematory operator certification program and model laws for cremation have significant application to practices in pet memorialization. CANA takes pride in being the cremation solutions community and is pleased to work with IAOPCC to extend the reach of our community.”

So there you have it. Pet Cremations and Human Cremations will finally find common ground. And new terms will be invented too. That’s even better.

Actually, I totally support pet cremation and I think that people should handle the death of a pet as they see fit. The death of a pet can be more heart braking than the death of a human relative. My only concern is that these new agreed upon standards don’t create higher prices. That seems to happen too.

cremation Death + the Law

UK Hindu Man is Burning Down the House

Hindu Wins Northumberland Funeral Pyre Battle
BBC News (February 10, 2010)

Hindu Man Wins Court Battle for Open-Air Cremation Pyre
Matthew Taylor The Guardian (February 10, 2010)

It has been a big week for cremation in the UK. On Wednesday, Davender Ghai, a 71-year old Hindu man from Newcastle won a landmark court case on Appeal. The Ghai case is fairly straightforward: when he dies, he wants to be cremated on an open air pyre, as opposed to inside an industrial grade crematorium furnace. Mr. Ghai is a devout Hindu so his request is grounded in religious reasons.

When Mr. Ghai first made the request in 2006, he was told ‘No’ by Newcastle officials. He then took his case to the UK Courts and kept losing until this most recent decision.

I am providing an extremely rushed explanation of the case. Burning through it, you might say. The Guardian and BBC News articles at the top explain the case history. I also wrote about Mr. Ghai’s case a few weeks ago on the Death Reference Desk.

So let’s skip ahead to why the Ghai case is important. Two important questions were pondered by the Appeals Court: 1.) What is a building, as stipulated in the 1902 Cremation Act? And, 2.) Does the mere thought of an open air pyre cause the general public mental anguish?

In a nutshell, Davender Ghai agreed to a pyre enclosed by four walls (with no ceiling) and his lawyers demonstrated that his request didn’t cause the general public mental angst. Indeed, it seems to me that this form of ‘natural cremation’ (a term cleverly invented by Mr. Ghai’s legal team) will have a huge appeal to all the natural and green burial people in the UK. How that gets managed is an entirely different question, since Mr. Ghai made his request based upon religious reasons.

More than anything, this case demonstrates that supposedly immutable death laws can be challenged and changed to encompass the world’s religions. And in the case of Mr. Ghai, his request faithfully follows the law.

Watch this video to see Devander’s Ghai’s happiness with the decision. I have never been happier for an individual’s eventual death…

Video: Devout Hindu wins funeral pyre fight – Watch more Videos at Vodpod.
Death + Art / Architecture Death + the Law Death Ethics Death Ref Questions

Using Cremains in Memorial Tattoos

Samantha asks the Death Reference Desk:

A couple relatives and I just had my aunt’s ashes put in ink for a memorial tat. My question is since she was so sick, will there be a transfer or will it be okay since she was cremated?

The short answer is: Yes, it’ll be okay. Cremators run between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well beyond hot enough to destroy the pathogens that made the aunt sick. As a result, the cremains will be rendered nonhazardous and useable in tattoo ink.

The long answer is also: Yes, it’s okay, meaning there won’t be a risk of catching her disease. However… internet scavenging and talking with those in the know reveal a lot of confusion about the health risks with using cremains in memorial tattoos: hearsay, misinformation, nondisclosure and a heck of a lot of personal experience — much of it positive — but nothing by way of definitive research or official guidelines from either the tattooing community or health officials.

We get a lot of traffic at DeathRef from people searching for info on memorial tattoos and the use of cremains therein; sparked by Samantha’s question, I decided to do some more digging. A quick note for those unfamiliar with the topic: a memorial tattoo is any tattoo that commemorates a deceased loved one (person or pet), perhaps with his or her image, name, birth and death dates or other personal or religious symbols. That’s it — you don’t need to have cremated ashes mixed into the ink to have a memorial tattoo, in fact, most people don’t. The idea is, however, growing in popularity — if not in practice, then certainly in public awareness about it.

There are three main areas of contention: health, legal/liability issues and ethics. The health concerns are understandable but possibly misdirected — that is, having more to do with cultural taboo than science. While precautions must be taken to ensure everything is sanitary (as with any normal tattooing), the idea that death in all its forms is inherently dirty and to be avoided at all costs — and certainly not deliberately injected into one’s skin — seems to play into the health and safety-oriented objections.

Nonetheless, and most certainly, following cremation, care must be taken to ensure no contamination is introduced to the ashes (from careless handling, airborne germs, etc.). Disagreement exists whether the ashes are “sterilized” from the cremation itself. Many suggest the ashes should be oven baked at home or at a hospital or lab before being mixed in the ink; just as many call foul (me included), as the temperature in the crematorium definitely far exceeds anything you could do at home and likely in other facilities as well.

A UK tattoo artist writing in The Tattoo Forum elaborates on the idea of sterilization, stating one method “involves the further use of heat and the other involves a chemical exposure process” but withholds details due to “the restraints of not allowing unlicensed tattooing.” Fair enough? Perhaps… it is frustrating, though, to be unable to access solid, reliable information. If there’s any chance the cremains have been contaminated (for instance, if they’ve been stored for an extended period in a non-hermetically sealed container), then they should definitely be sterilized in some manner.

The major health-related claim is that the body will reject the ashes as a foreign substance. As such, only a tiny portion should be used, with no significant pieces of bone present — only the finest particles. How tiny is tiny? Sue C. in a Yelp thread says her artist retrieved cremains for her tattoo on the tip of a toothpick.

Also keep in mind that the term “ashes” is misleading; cremains are pulverized bone fragments, sand-like in texture. Some suggest first grinding them further with a (sterilized) mortar and pestle. Either way, they won’t dissolve in the ink but instead remain suspended. In a blog post at Ask BME (Body Modification Ezine), someone comments that she “had a good sized ‘chunk’ put in on purpose so that I could feel him [her dog] in there.” This is probably not recommended — then again, in this case, it seems to have turned out fine.

The cremains will thicken the ink — the more present, the denser the ink, which may give it a slightly raised feel, almost like puffy paint. This would be long-term — different from the initial scabbing, which is common in regular tattooing as the area heals.

As for rejection or other complications such as infections, these happen with normal tattooing, either from personal predisposition (being allergic to or irritated by certain kinds or colors of ink), non-sterile tattooing equipment or environments or poor post-tattooing care. Needless to say, you should always get inked by a professional and follow all instructions for keeping the tattoo, cremains-infused or not, clean as it heals.

Does the addition of cremains increase one’s risk of complication? Well, wouldn’t we all like to know. It would seem reasonable to say yes, as it introduces one more variable, but given all the other variables and protocols to avoid problems, an increased risk could be negligible or even eliminated with proper procedure and care. In other words, someone vigilant about doing everything right may be no more or less likely to have problems than for regular tattoos. Of equal importance and interest, for problems that do arise, it’s likely impossible to know which is the culprit: the cremains or the ink itself, which is just as much a foreign substance.

The practice is legal insofar as it’s not explicitly prohibited — but there are certainly laws about the misuse of human remains. Whether this applies is up for debate. People who get cremains-infused memorial tattoos obviously have no qualms about it, in fact, they see it as the ultimate tribute: a way of having a part of the person with them forever, and in a more serious, permanent way than other death memorializing, such as jewelry that incorporates ashes.

But I have yet to see mention of whether the deceased were aware of and consented to the idea, or discussion of whether this matters. It also has a ways to go as far as social and cultural acceptance (that whole “death is taboo and dirty” thing again). Those with cremains tattoos say they choose wisely who they tell to avoid needlessly disturbing people, and that the tattoo is meant for personal remembrance anyway — not for showing it off, at least the boasting the dead person is actually in the ink! part. Without question, some people are appalled by the practice — including tattoo artists who refuse to do it. Several websites report the difficulty of finding a willing artist.

This reluctance is more than moral objection and routine squeamishness. Though no laws forbid the practice, tattooists often fear liability if something goes wrong, even with waivers cogently signed. Though it’s not specifically illegal, there is legal uncertainty with this uncharted territory. Having a normal tattoo go awry is one thing — everyone involved knows the risks. Having one with cremains bubble with lesions because well, the truth, Your Honor, is there’s a dead person in there… is quite another, regardless of whether the cremains are the reason for complication.

Not only is it difficult to track down an artist who does this, those who do do it don’t seem to advertise it, at least not on the web. This may point to a desire to keep it underground — not for exclusivity, but to avoid public and official scrutiny that may try to regulate or ban it altogether. Is this a real possibility? Hard to say. Tattooing in the United States has spotty regulation, and this seems to me like unwanted attention, however ecstatic and grateful the customers who choose to remember their loved ones in this way.

Needless to say, it’ll be interesting to see how the practice evolves in social, medical and legal contexts — and I apologize in the meantime for my speculative tone and inconclusive take on the topic. As said, information is scarce, especially authoritative, research-based facts, and it may take awhile for this to improve. Growing in popularity or not, it’s still a fringe practice — one that creeps out even the freakiest.

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Bodies Fill the Detroit Morgue

Detroit: Too broke to bury their dead
Poppy Harlow, (October 1, 2009)

This CNN story on Detroit is heartbreaking. The economic situation in Detroit is horrible enough, but this particular dispatch says more about the financial straits of life and death than anything I have seen.

Over the summer, the New York Times ran an article on why home burials were a sign of the recession. I wrote about it here. The unclaimed dead body situation in Detroit is a much more profound statement about the economy than home burials.

Not only can families not afford to retrieve a deceased loved one because of the cost (even if they want to) the Wayne County Morgue does not have enough money for the final disposition of the bodies. So the bodies all remain in cold storage, waiting for something to happen.

Watch this video attached to CNN article:

Articles about the economy and death have been a re-occurring theme the last few months. This article got published in Green Bay, WI: Unclaimed cremated remains accumulate at Allouez cemetery.

Unclaimed Cremated Remains in Green Bay

Earlier in September, the New York Times ran an article on Wall Street investment firms buying and selling elderly and ill persons’ life insurance policies: The Back to Business: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance.

And this AP article discusses a subject that I assumed would pop up eventually: Weak economy sparks rebirth of funeral sciences.

Then there are these stories: that the economy is actually good for some funeral homes because of increased mortality rates…

The video is the lead to this article about a Dallas, TX funeral home: At Golden Gate Funeral Home, Bodies Are John Beckwith Jr.’s Business, And Business Is Booming.

But when push comes to shove, and the economy gets really really bad, there is always Craigslist…

Date: 2009-07-20, 10:59AM
Guaranteed to keep your Goth hide translucent white during these hot and bright summer days, this hand-made coffin is just right for the petit Vampire or Vampette. If you are just under 5 feet tall (or can shape-shift to something smaller) with a 29-inch wing span, you will feel cozy and safe sleeping away the pesky daylight hours with this tasteful but unassuming box tucked away in your lair.

Goth Coffin

Your minions can keep your chamber mobile with these fine handles made of Transylvanian hemp and the tucked and buttoned red padded lining will have you snoring until sun down. The hand-painted, one-of-a-kind, whimsical take on a Coptic cross is certain not to offend any version of Goth, vamp or even warm-blood who might have the privilege of actually seeing your private chamber.

It’s hard to let this beautiful treasure go, but we’ve just run out of room. And with all of the sensible people around (see True Blood), we just don’t need to be so private anymore. It can be found and taken for free in the 3400 block of Barranca circle near Mt Bonnell. Better hurry though. It is Big Trash week in our neighborhood.

cremation Death + Technology Death Ethics Eco-Death

Reduce – Reuse – Recycle – the Dead…

Body Heat
The Economist (August 6, 2009)

Let us all say it together: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle. Now add: Dead bodies. It’s true. Shocking, but true.

A strong case can be made that organ donation, for example, is the noblest form of cadaveric recycling and that the reuse of human organs and tissues to extend life is a huge social good. That said, the dead human body offers up numerous recycling possibilities and many local and/or national governments have turned those postmortem opportunities into actual policies.

Reduce Reuse Recycle

These particular recycling plans focus on transforming the by-products produced through the final disposition of human remains (say from cremation) into new goods. That is a wordy way of saying that the various kinds of Green Technologies running rampant across the globe can also be used on dead bodies.

I am all for it.

The short Economist article at the top is about two different kinds of postmortem recycling. The first section explores the recycling of artificial joint implants (hips, knees, etc.), which can then be re-used in other industries. The left-over metal is melted down and sold to companies that use the different alloys in their own products. These companies often include ones that make joint implants. It’s all a bit circular (…just like the reduce reuse recycle arrows…) but it works. And many of the metal recyclers donate portions of their sales to designated charities.

Artificial Hip Joint

In about three years Denmark’s crematorium association has earned $15,000 from salvaged parts. America is a bit behind both Europe and the UK when it comes to implant recycling but at least one US company in Detroit, MI is making a go of it: Implant Recycling. I like to imagine that Detroit’s economic re-birth will start because of postmortem recycling.

Author Mark Harris, whose book Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial is a good primer on eco-friendly burial, has one of the best photos that I have ever seen of a hip replacement post-cremation. Note how the metal hip replacement glows red amongst the remains:

Hip Replacement in the Crematorium

The second section of the Economist article discusses a topic that I am actually working on: recycling crematorium heat. Regulations require crematoriums to filter toxic substances from waste gases by cooling them from around 800°C to 180°C. Crematoriums capture the excess energy from this process and send the “waste heat” into building heating systems.

I remember explaining this concept a few years ago to a group of American college students. A few of them were aghast, to say the least. In early January 2008, officials at the Dukinfield Crematorium near Manchester, England announced that they would, indeed, begin capturing the crematorium’s exhaust, filter it, and then re-use it to heat the building. The always excitable Daily Mail ran a predictably over-the-top article on the plan: Crematorium to keep mourners warm by burning bodies of loved ones.

But, as even the Mail admits, not one person in the surrounding community (or in the Anglican Church for that matter) complained about the plan.

So here is the big lesson (and I learned it with the aforementioned students): when people understand that the heat being captured and re-used is already being produced vis-a-vis cremation, and that the same excess, potentially useful heat would otherwise go to waste, they are agreeable to the whole concept.

Indeed, the Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium on the southern edge of Bath (near the University of Bath where I work) has a state-of-the-art facility capable of heat recycling. Haycombe’s Manager, the always good humored Rosemary Tiley, will gladly give a tour of the facility and/or the public can visit during one of the crematorium’s Open Days.

The larger question to ask about crematorium heat recycling, however, is how any surplus energy (after the local needs are met) could/can be channeled to the national grid? That is the next leap. Cremation rates in the UK are high: 72% nationally (the US cremation rate is currently at about 33% but growing) so making use of the crematoriums in this way makes sense.

Everything that I am writing today may seem a bit crass and bit too Soylent Green but a good public education plan goes a long way in explaining why these programs are socially useful.

In fact, cemetery planners in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, Spain (near Barcelona) have installed solar panels on the mausoleums to collect energy. It’s a great plan to help produce electricity for local homes and since most cities (large, medium, and small) have cemeteries in their vicinity, this might just work in other places. The Spanish authorities effectively explained the merits of the program and the public got behind it.

Not everyone is a fan of these Green burial initiatives. Evangelical Christian leader Chuck Colson, he of Nixon Administration infamy, lambasted an early 2009 article on Green Burial technologies. Colson offered a special commentary in his BreakPoint Ministries column on the absurdity of eco-burial concerns. I firmly believe that Colson missed the entire point of the Slate article but so it goes.

So let us all say it together one more time: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle…