The cycle of life?

Reading Mary Roach’s fascinating book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers recently, I came across the notion of composting of human remains as an alternative to burial or cremation.  I found the idea extremely attractive, particularly after reading the following charmingly enthusiastic descriptions of the process:

..we must travel to Sweden, to a tiny island called Lyrön, due west of Gothenburg.  This is the home of a forty-seven-year-old  biologist-entrepreneur named Susanne Wiigh-Masak.  Two years ago, Wiigh-Masak founded a company called Promessa, which seeks to replace cremation (the choice of 70 percent of Swedes) with a technologically enhanced form of organic composting.  This is no mom-and-pop undertaking of the lunatic Green Fringe.  Wiigh-Masak has King Carl Gustav and the Church of Sweden on her side.  She has crematoria vying to be the first to compost a dead Swede.  …  She has major corporate backing, an international patent, and over two hundred press clips.  Mortuary professionals and entrepreneurs from Germany, Holland, Israel, Australia, and the United States have expressed interest in representing Promessa’s technology in their own countries.  …

Let’s say a man dies in Upsala, and that he has checked the box on the church-distributed living will that says: “I want that the new method freeze-drying ecological funeral will be used if it is available when I die.”  (The equipment is still being developed; Wiigh-Masak hopes to have it ready sometime in 2003.)  The man’s body will be brought to an establishment that has licensed Promessa’s technology.  He will be lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen and frozen.  From here he will progress to the second chamber, where either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibrations will be used to break his easily shattered self into small pieces, more or less the size of ground chuck.  The pieces, still frozen, will then be freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub, either in a churchyard memorial park or in the family’s yard.  …

She pushes a shovel into the heap and raises a foamy clod.  It is complex and full of unnamable fragments, like a lasagna baked by an unsupervised child.  She points out feathers from a duck that died a few weeks back, shells from the mussels that her husband, Peter, farms on the other side of the island, cabbage from last week’s coleslaw.  She explains the difference between rotting and composting, that the needs of humans and the needs of compost are similar: oxygen, water, air temperature that does not stray far from 37 degrees centigrade.  Her point: We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials, with the same basic needs.  We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week’s coleslaw.  Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth.  …

She returns to the clod.  “Compost should not be ugly,” she is saying.  “It should be lovely, it should be romantic.”  She feels similarly about dead bodies.  “Death is a possibility for new life.  the body becomes something else.  I would like that that something else be as positive as possible.”  People have criticised her, she says, for lowering the dead to the level of garden waste.  She doesn’t see it that way.  “I say, let’s lift garden waste to as high a level as human bodies.”  What she’s trying to say is that nothing organic should be treated as waste.  It should all be recycled.  …

Isn’t that marvellous!  No longer will we be forced to choose between the stomach-turning process of underground decomposition or the violence of a fiery furnace.  This process will allow us to bypass the icky stuff and more or less instantly start turning into a tree (or a shrub)!  So of course the first thing I did after reading this chapter was to google Promessa.  The book had, after all, been published in 2004, so the process must be perfected by now.  Imagine my disappointment on finding the following in the Wikipedia entry:

The first Promatorium was due to be opened in the Spring of 2011 in Sweden, followed shortly by sites in the UK and South Korea.  However, as of April 2012, the first Promatorium (or Promator as Promessa Organic calls it) is still said to be ‘6 to 12 months’ away from construction.  …

The process has so far never been tested on human remains.  Tests on dead pigs has been claimed to show that much more brute force would be needed than what has been told.  Initial backers of Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Promessa Organic; Swedish funeral home Fonus and gas provider AGA AB, has left the project after Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak reportedly has failed to provide evidence of the process being operational.  Church of Sweden has ended the cooperation and sold off their company shares in Promessa Organic.  Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak is claiming that she is being worked against by the Swedish crematory organisation and the funeral directors of Sweden.  Professor in cellular biology and medicine, Bengt R Johansson of Gothenburg University, goes as far as calling the process surrounding the promessa method a fraud.

In several cases, the dead remains of people wanting to go through the promessa process has been waiting for up to ten years, in some cases resulting in forced burials to comply with Swedish burial law.  The method itself has come under criticism for not being real.

So I’ve pretty much given up on the composting idea (for now, at least).  I guess this would be an interesting way for my corpse to make itself useful.

DNA portraits

Check out this mind-blowing project.  Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg is using DNA gathered from public places to create portraits of the owners.

..she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color,  propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such  as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different  traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of  working on right now,” she says.

Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create  a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture  of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point  towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The  artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of  her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into  sculpture.

Ding dong

I went to see a Pieter Dirk Uys live performance last night.  Pieter Dirk Uys is a brilliant South African performer who uses satire to comment on current social and political issues.  He is greatly loved by South Africans because of his brilliant humour and the fact that he’s never shied away from pointing out injustice, hipocrisy and incompetence, no matter who the target is.  He was openly critical of the Apartheid government, which was known for silencing critics through any means, and he is openly critical of the incompetencies and corruption in the current government.  He is well known for his impersonations of politicians and other dignitaries, including PW Botha, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

In last night’s show he brought back many favourite characters, including Margaret Thatcher.  His impersonation of her is splendid; he gets the voice and accent just right.  To introduce the character, he sang “Ding dong, the witch is dead.”  This is a song we’ve been hearing a lot lately in connection with her passing.  There has even been a campaign to push it to the top of the music charts.

I confess that I am a little taken aback by all this vitriol being aimed at a dead woman.  I understand that many people don’t agree with what she said and did, and that some of her policies were very controversial.  But she was not an evil, malicious or selfish person.  She didn’t become a politician because she wanted to be rich and famous, and she didn’t use her office to enrich or in other ways benefit herself, as so many other politicians seem to do.  She was an honest, hardworking individual who loved her country and dedicated her life to making it a better place for everyone.

Not everyone agreed with her policies, but people seem quick to forget that the British economy was basically dying when she took office, and she pretty much saved it.  From the way people were dancing in the streets after her death, you could be excused for thinking she was some kind of monster dictator who ruined the country before being overthrown, rather than someone who was elected to her post three times through a transparent democratic process.

This New York Times article does a better job than I could of listing her many accomplishments.  I am a Liberal at heart, and don’t agree with many of the things she believed.  I certainly don’t approve of everything she did.  But I look at her life and I see someone I can admire, someone who lived her life with passion, dignity, courage and honour and who changed the world in many ways, many of them for the better.  I would much rather celebrate her life than her death.

The fallibility of Wikipedia

Salon has an interesting article by Andrew Leonard on how vulnerable Wikipedia is to editors abusing the anonymity of the contribution process to further their own agenda.  Although this is somewhat alarming, the fact that it has been discovered, exposed and corrected shows that the crowd-sourcing model can be highly self-corrective.  I love Wikipedia.  I think it is one of the greatest human achievements over our entire history, and we should all do everything we can to protect it and make it even better.