Tech Changes The Face Of Death

22:17 minutes

An antique photo shows a group of men in black overcoats and bowler hats, carry the coffin with the deceased at the cemetery
A funeral in Germany, 1963. Credit: Igor Golovniov, via Shutterstock.

Earlier in 2018, Utah became the 15th state to legalize water cremation, or alkaline hydrolysis. Unlike traditional cremation, which burns human remains at 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, water cremation uses a mixture of water and lye, along with heat and pressure, to break down the remains. Meanwhile, many cemeteries across the country now offer green burial sites—sites that ban embalming fluid and use biodegradable caskets.

As climate-conscious consumers consider their final arrangements, alternative funerals like a water cremation or a green burial are becoming more popular in the face of resource-heavy traditional funerals. John Troyer, director of the Center of Death and Society at the University of Bath, and Kartik Chandran, environmental engineer at the Death Lab at Columbia University, join Ira Flatow to look beyond the traditional funeral.

Plus, Candi Cann, an associate professor at Baylor University and author of the book Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century, chats about how social media and other digital platforms are helping people memorialize the dead.

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Segment Guests

John Troyer

John Troyer is Director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath in Bath, United Kingdom.

Kartik Chandran

Kartik Chandran is an environmental engineer and an associate researcher at the Death Lab of Columbia University in New York, New York.

Candi Cann

Candi Cann is an associate professor in Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Earlier this year, Utah legalized something called water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis. This is, instead of burning human remains at 1,400 degrees like in a traditional cremation, water cremation, as the name suggests, uses a mixture of water and lye along with heat and pressure to break down the remains. Now you may not have heard of this type of cremation, but 15, 15 states have legalized the practice.

Alternative funeral options are becoming more popular now. Many cemeteries across the country now offer green burial sites. Green burials don’t use embalming fluid to preserve the body and the caskets have to be biodegradable.

The amount of resources traditional funerals use are changing the way people think about their final resting place, and my next guests are going to talk about why people are choosing alternative funerary practice. John Troyer is director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath in England. Welcome to Science Friday.

JOHN TROYER: Good afternoon, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be on this show with you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. And Kartik Chandran is an environmental engineer and research associate at the DeathLAB at Columbia. Welcome to Science Friday.

KARTIK CHANDRAN: Thanks, Ira. Hello, John.

JOHN TROYER: Hello, Kartik. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Kartik, tell us. Tell us about– what is the DeathLAB like at Columbia?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: I’m only part of DeathLAB. DeathLAB is led by Karla Rothstein from the GSAPP, the Graduate School of Architecture, Policy, and Planning. I’m a professor in the School of Engineering.

And I work on biological systems, biological transformations. This is one of the more interesting applications that I’m actually currently working on. And of course, I was introduced to this by Karla.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into some of the alternatives that we can talk about. John, we mentioned– I mentioned right at the top water cremation. Can you tell us what it is, give us a little thumbnail description of it?

JOHN TROYER: Sure, the water cremation system is– it’s an alkaline hydrolysis-based system. So it was developed years ago for any– really animal carcasses but any kind of organic material. And the process works this way.

You take a body. In this case, it would be a human body. And you put it in a stainless steel cylinder.

It’s flooded with water, heated, and you also then usually involve an alkaline like a potassium hydroxide. But it usually can be a different mix. And what it does is it breaks the body down of the organic matter, leaving any inorganic matter, such as implants or, for example, fillings in teeth. And then you’re left with bone material like you would have for a cremation system. And then the post-process fluid then generally go to the wastewater treatment plant.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So when– so you basically then have the fluid left over and you’re left with the bones. And what happens to the bones?

JOHN TROYER: Well, the bones can then be processed like they would do with a cremation. So they’re made into smaller pieces, sometimes what’s used– what’s referred to as the Cremulator and then returned to the family. And they can then be scattered or handled however the family wishes.

IRA FLATOW: So people are looking for alternatives to cremation and burial, then, is what you’re saying.

JOHN TROYER: Yeah, of course, but I think that’s a longstanding tradition. I mean, I think that there’s been a– as long as humans or even we can go with our cousins neanderthals have been burying the dead. There’s always been a looking for how can we do it different or otherwise.

IRA FLATOW: Kartik, you agree?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: Well, yes. Overall, I agree, but again, I’m working on a specific aspect of this, and I can actually draw parallels to what John actually just said.

IRA FLATOW: Well, describe what you’re working on.

KARTIK CHANDRAN: Yeah, yeah. So what John just described, alkaline hydrolysis, is the chemical process of breakdown of the different constituents of organic matter for, instance, in a human body. What we we’re doing is we are doing this using microorganisms, so biologically– not chemically, but biologically. And we actually use, coincidentally, some somewhat similar terms– not alkaline hydrolysis, but hydrolysis, really the first step in the biological breakdown of complex organic materials such as the human body, such as the cells that comprise the human body. But then there are subsequent steps beyond hydrolysis that are also interesting.

So what microorganisms do under anaerobic conditions, which refers to the absence of oxygen– first is the complex organic molecules are broken down through hydrolysis, biological hydrolysis as opposed to chemical hydrolysis, into their more simple forms. And the process, basically this cascade, basically continues until the molecules could reach terminally methane, which potentially could be a form of energy. And this is something that we had investigated earlier on.

But then recognizing that, well, methane is fine as an energy source, but we have to consider that a single human body may not be able to produce a lot of energy. And also there might be other forms of energy that could be more readily captured. We have since focused our attention to the direct conversion of let’s, say, not the organic carbon but, let’s say, the electrons that constitute any organic materials directly into electricity and directly into light–


KARTIK CHANDRAN: –thereafter. But similar to what John said, in terms of what remains, what remains in the biological process then is nitrogen and phosphorus and of course the inorganics also. And so– which can be recovered.

IRA FLATOW: OK, we’re going to have to take a break. We’ll come back and talk lots more about the green way of dying. Our number– 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us @scifri.

We’re back after the break. Stay with us. This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.

We’re talking about the new way of people, well, after they die, what to do with their bodies, you know? The funeral parlors are having different options available to people who want to look at sort of green ways of being buried without being buried. Space is running out.

People are not crazy about going up in flames and all the pollution that happens with embalming fluid and remains and things like that. So I have a couple of guests who are here to talk about that. John Troyer is director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath in England, and Kartik Chandran is environment engineer and research associate at the DeathLAB at Columbia University. You just got into– Kartik, you just got to talking about this electrical tech– so you basically turn the body into electrons at the end?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: Well, we– no, we are just using the electrons that are inherently present. So we’re just harnessing those electrons as opposed to, let’s say, dissipating them as we would if we combusted the human body.

IRA FLATOW: Have you tried this out on any humans– human bodies yet?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: No, no. We have not tried this out on human bodies. We are still quite early on in this work. We are using surrogates.

For instance, we’ve done work with pork chops, which is what could be used in our labs. And that’s where we are. So it’s very much in the lab right now. I’ll be the first to admit that we still have some ways to go.

IRA FLATOW: And John, what are some other ways people are trying to make this way of dying more green?

JOHN TROYER: Well, I mean, there’s been a series of systems that have been developed. There have been people who have tried cold-based freeze drying systems, whether that’s some kind of flash freezing or different exposures to cold to make the body brittle. There’s different companies that have been approaching that.

There’s also, in some ways, looking at just approaches to decomposition, putting the body out, letting it break down that way. There is the flame-based system. There’s water-based.

There’s a whole number of ways people try to do it. I mean, I think that really, the issue has always been one more of partly creativity. How can we think about different ways to approach the final disposition of human remains?

And certainly what Kartik and the DeathLAB group were doing, it’s good that way. But also there’s always a question around how does do social attitudes change. And that’s always been a big part of it as well.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me a bit more about that.

JOHN TROYER: Well, I think there’s always a knee jerk response that says any new method of disposing of dead bodies will automatically be rejected. And you tend to get a kind of moral panic at times about that. The way that I tend to explain it is that there’s a sort of Monday to Friday system of acceptance, which on Monday, you have the moral panic.

You can expect any kind of tabloid, particularly over here in England, to have a sort of blaring headline about how this is immoral and evil. And then by Friday, you get vast philosophical introspection about what this can mean about the– you know, what is life? What is death?

How do we understand the person? And so I think over time, you find that any new method, once introduced, becomes accepted. Cremation is the classic example– not widely accepted for many, many years and now increasingly becoming the go-to method of final disposition.

IRA FLATOW: We got lot of people that want to talk about this. Let’s go to the phones– 844-724-8255. Donna in Utica, New York– hi, Donna.

DONNA: Hi. I probably have all of this wrong. When you said you were going to the segment, I was looking frantically for this article from a few years ago. But the gentleman mentioned something about freezing the body. And I thought there was some place in the Netherlands where they were trying to do something like that. I want to say, and I’m probably getting it wrong, nitric oxide– like, they took the fluids out of the body and then you froze the body and it was like, you could tap it and it would, like, shatter like glass. But it was supposed to be your body would be, like, nutrients for the soil and it wouldn’t be hazardous to the Earth’s health for you to put it in the soil, does he know anything about that?

IRA FLATOW: I’ll ask. John? Kartik?

JOHN TROYER: Well, yeah, I think what your column might be referring to is a system that was developed in Sweden by a woman named Susanne Wiigh-Masak called Promession, and that was a freeze-drying system. And it was using nitrogen, liquid, to freeze the body. And that was the basic premise. There are still– there are other companies working on it, and they’re trying to get the technology off the ground and people using it. But that, in a sense, is how it works, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you know, John, I imagine cities– here in a big city like New York, there are many cemeteries. They’re now sort of in the middle of the cities because the city is spread around outside of them.


IRA FLATOW: Cities must realize there’s going to be a shortage of where to place bodies sooner or later.

JOHN TROYER: No, they do, and a city like New York is great because– I’m from a small town in Wisconsin where we got nothing but land. But in New York, there’s actually a huge secondary market in reselling of grave plots where families figure out that they’ve got the plot and someone wants to buy it. So that’s the market side of it.

In terms of what cities do, well, yeah, there’s all kinds of plans. Again, what the DeathLAB group has been working on, and certainly Karla Rothstein, who I count as a good colleague and friend, you know, they’ve been trying to develop how can cities pioneer new method of creating these burial kinds of spots that may not so much go down but maybe go up or maybe elevate or come up with methods that are not so dependent on long periods of time. Yeah, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to Zoe in Cincinnati. Hi, Zoe.

ZOE: Hi, Ira. Thanks for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

ZOE: I just wanted to make a comment about I’ve heard that a few companies have been working on using either our ashes or our remains to plant trees. And I just think it’s interesting that they’re trying to use our dead cells to create new life.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Kartik, have you heard about that?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: I haven’t heard about this, that would be my– that would be the most logical end point, really, and especially with anaerobic biological systems. The nutrients in our cells, in any cells– any living cells for that matter, they are not modified. And so they remain in almost an ideal state to serve as nutrients for plant growth.

IRA FLATOW: John Troyer, what do you say about that?

JOHN TROYER: Well, yeah. I mean, there’s 1,001 uses people have come up with for cremated remains now at this point, and there’s a number of companies that are offering what you might think of as more biologically based or tree based systems or cremation urns that are biodegradable and you put the remains in and then a tree grows from it. I mean, it’s carbonized material, so anything you can do with carbonized material, you can do it. And it makes good sense. I think– I’m fully supporting people’s choices to dispose of their remains as they see it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank both of you for taking time to join us today. John Troyer is director of the Center for Death and Society, and Kartik Chandran is an environmental engineer and a research associate at the DeathLAB at Columbia University. Nice title over there, Kartik. Good luck to both of you. Technology is–


IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. Technology isn’t just helping us deal with the infrastructure problem of death. It has also changed the way we memorialize the dead.

Medical advances during the 50s and 60s moved dying from in the home to in hospitals, pushing death out of sight. Well, social media and other digital platforms are bringing it back into plain view, and it’s helping people grieve. Joining me to talk about death and how it’s making its way to digital space is Candi Cann. She is an associate professor at Baylor University and author of the book Virtual Afterlives– Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century. Welcome to Science Friday.

CANDI CANN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You know, we have seen online– one type of online memorial are websites that funeral homes offer. You know, they put you as part of their funeral package. Are those becoming more popular?

CANDI CANN: They are becoming more popular, and for funeral homes to stay viable and to be relevant, more and more of them are offering some kind of a digital services package as part of their funeral. So it’s usually a complimentary service, and you can write a digital obituary. You can leave grandpa. You can give grandma a teddy bear and you can even send virtual flowers online.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s sort of a place that would stay up– I don’t imagine how long. Probably a long time so people could visit it.

CANDI CANN: That’s right. So they– most funeral homes have a kind of digital archive that remains online so you can go back and visit it. I’ve seen these archives go back as far as 10, 12 years.


CANDI CANN: And then people will leave their remembrances. And so instead of having a physical or a material guest book, you would sign a digital guest book.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. so have social media like Facebook or places like that played a role here too?

KARTIK CHANDRAN: Yes. So social media is definitely in a place where I think most people are seeing changing notions of grief online. And I think it’s been really interesting to watch the kind of progress because now, there’s actually ritualized procedures that we see across social media, whether it’s in China or Mexico or the United States. You see things like people posting a picture of the deceased, writing a message annually on the day of the death, writing a message on the day of the birth, and then just revisiting the social media pages, say, on Facebook or writing someone on Twitter when everyone is reminded of the deceased.

IRA FLATOW: I imagine there must be apps for that now besides just the website.

KARTIK CHANDRAN: There are apps. So there’s some interesting apps. Like in China, they have a tradition called Quinming, where you go back to the tomb and clean the tomb and honor the deceased annually. And so in China now, they– actually the government has sponsored an app so that– their purpose is to reduce transportation pollution. And so you can actually, instead of going back to grandpa’s grave and cleaning it, you can simply visit him online while you’re riding the subway and burn some incense, leave a prayer, and send a message.

IRA FLATOW: So you have virtual incense online.


IRA FLATOW: On the app– wow I understand that people have also started tying the physical space of death to the digital space like with ghost bikes, right, where people have died on a bicycle. And there are spaces there, sort of geo–

CANDI CANN: That’s right. Yeah, so ghost bikes are something that emerged a few years ago. And so bikers were being killed, and as a way to remember them, people would buy a second hand bike at, say, goodwill or Salvation Army and then paint it white.

So it would look like a ghostly bike in the physical landscape. Then they would put a biography of the person that was killed and basically write a narrative of how that person was killed. The idea was to challenge the political space of cars and try to get people to think about the fact that a lot of bikers are killed.

And the narratives are usually written like, oh, the biker ran into the door of the car instead of– so it kind of puts the fault on the biker. So the ghost bike movement was first started to challenge those narratives, to make people more aware of how many people are killed on bikes annually. So they place these ghost bikes in the physical space where the person was killed. And then there’s a virtual map online where you can visit every bike at its GPS location and then actually read the story of the person that was killed there.

IRA FLATOW: Very interesting. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m Ira Flatow talking about ghost bikes and other online ways to talk about death with Candi Cann.

She’s associate professor at Baylor University and author of Virtual Afterlives– Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century. Something else that you mentioned are QR codes. We’re putting QR codes on grave sites?

CANDI CANN: Yes. So it’s popular in the United States in historical locations where you can put a QR code onto a gravestone. Now the technology there is changing.

We’re probably moving to a point and scan or click and scan technology. But the technology remains the same. The idea is like “Pokemon Go” where you have this kind of layer, a virtual layer, on the physical landscape.

So you can point and click and scan this QR code and you can pull up the person’s biography. You can pull out, say, their playlist. You can pull out their favorite meal, a video of them. So the idea is that the person becomes this kind of 3D reality, and they reside permanently in this, you know, virtual layer.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, that is helpful, I imagine, you know, for people who can’t physically get out to see the grave site and want to visit, especially if you live in a different country than where the person is buried.

CANDI CANN: I absolutely agree. And in fact, we’re seeing some really interesting trends. Andrea [? Desosa-Martin, ?] she does some really interesting work on Brazilian online wakes. So in Brazil, it’s becoming quite popular now to livestream the wake at a funeral. So if you can’t make the funeral, then at least you can attend the wake online.

IRA FLATOW: So the internet really is really helpful here in ways we may not even have thought about.

CANDI CANN: Exactly, and I think it also democratizes grief. It allows people a way to have these conversations about the dead that you may not be able to do on an everyday basis. You know, you’re at work and you’re grieving, but it’s not really appropriate conversation. And so this way, you can go online and leave a message and find a community of people who are also grieving with you.

IRA FLATOW: So the internet really has filled a void for some people who are grieving.

CANDI CANN: Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: Are there other things you might think of in the future that might be or should be tried?

CANDI CANN: Well, there’s lots of interesting developments here, Ira. So some things that are happening now are people are creating digital avatars. So they’re are going online to try to download your consciousness, if you will.

And so by interacting with the avatar, you can kind of create this space where you exist online where maybe you can give your granddaughter some advice in the future when you’re not around anymore. She can log on and have a conversation with you. And the jury’s still out on whether that’s helpful or not.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that gives AI a whole different job to do.

CANDI CANN: It really does.

IRA FLATOW: It really does. Wow, this is fascinating. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, Candi.

CANDI CANN: Oh, thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Candi Cann– she’s associate professor at Baylor University and author of the book Virtual Afterlives. Yeah, that is a virtual afterlife– Virtual Afterlives– Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century.

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