New Morbid Terminology: Promession

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

T-1000 shattering after being exposed to liquid nitrogen

T-1000 shattering after being exposed to liquid nitrogen

Remember Terminator 2, before our robot friend Arnold became a governor? In T2, the Terminator returns as the ‘good guy’, and our heroes are faced with a new enemy, a robot built from T-1000, a liquid metal that can morph into any shape. After an epic battle, our Terminator freezes the T-1000 robot with liquid nitrogen, and then shatters him into a million pieces. Of course, this doesn’t destroy him- merely slows him down for a little bit. The process of freezing and shattering a human is now a reality. Introducing our morbid word of the day: promession.

Promession is a proposed new form of cadaver treatment where human remains are disposed of through a method of freeze drying. The concept was first developed in the late 1990′s by a Swedish biologist named Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak. Her goal was to develop an environmentally friendly method of burial, where human remains could be used as a natural form of compost. In 1997, Wiigh-Mäsak founded the Promessa Organic AB, a commercial venture to make promession a reality. Their goal is to create a 100% organic and ecologically friendly burial. The goal is to breakdown the body in a ‘green’ manner that is quick, efficient, and returns the individual to the environment (Holst 2011).

From her website: “My idea is to combine biological knowledge with a dignified and ethically correct way of being remembered by ones next of kin. The primary principles are preservation after death in organic form and shallow burial in living soil that quickly converts us to mulch. I am aware of the fact that this way of thinking is contrary to many customs. Yet we should try to adopt a more natural approach to our life and our death. Today’s burial traditions conceal reality from people and do not allow them to feel secure in the fact that death is essential to new life.” (Wiigh-Mäsak 2014, see her full website: Promessa Organic)

Promession process, via Area Cremations

Promession process, via Area Cremations

Here is the complete process of promession (much more friendly than the Terminator 2 method discussed above)

  1. The first step is to  remove all the water from the deceased. Since water makes up 70% of a human’s mass, this is a critical first step. This is done about a week and a half following death. The corpse is frozen to minus 18 degrees Celsius, and then is submerged into liquid nitrogen.
  2. When the cadaver is completely frozen, it becomes very brittle. The body is then vibrated at a specific amplitude, which causes it to shatter into an organic powder.
  3. The remains are then placed in a vacuum so that the ice sublimes and the organic powder becomes completely dry. The final remains weigh 50-70% of the body prior to treatment.
  4. From here, the organic powder goes through a metal separator to remove any surgical spare parts, and is disinfected.
  5. The final process involves placement of the remains within a coffin made of corn starch. The burial is within a shallow grave, and it completely turns into compost within 6-12 months. A plant, bush or tree is planted with the burial to signify the location of the deceased, and this plant will aid in the composting cycle.

While the idea itself of promession seems a little otherworldly, the sentiment behind it is quite nice. The goal is returning the body to nature in a quick and efficient manner.

Here is a great little video on the process!

Works Cited

Holst 2011. Swedish green-burial firm to turn frozen corpses in compost. The Local.  http://www.thelocal.se/20110413/33178

Wiigh-Mäsak 2014. Promessa Organic. http://www.promessa.se/en/

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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