What exactly is death tech?

Photo of a section of a Japanese columbarium, where LED buddha glass statues sit on a gridded shelf in place of tombstones.

What we’re calling death tech is any new technology that is used to dispose of a dead body. (The fancy funeral industry word here is “disposition.”) Older forms of death technology might be burial or cremation. Death technology of the future includes methods like aquamation and natural organic reduction.

There are a surprising number of designers who are working toward reforming body disposition, internment, and memorialization. This New York Times article introduces you to some of these ideas and we discuss them in our Eco Death Takeover video.

Technology can also include new green products, cemeteries, and memorialization options. Here are some examples:

  • The DeathLab is working on an alternative to cremation and earthen burial and designing new public spaces of remembrance intertwined with everyday life.
  • The Santa Coloma de Gramenet Cemetery, outside Barcelona, Spain has converted its municipal burial space into a source for renewable energy with solar panels.
  • The African Burial Ground, located in New York, provides memorialization that integrates scholarship, technology, and civic engagement.
  • With changing lifestyles, lack of space, and environmental concerns numerous countries in Asia have been reimagining their final resting places like these columbariums in Japan, and a “library” for cremated remains in South Korea.

Alkaline Hydrolysis aka Water Cremation or Aquamation

Like Cremation, Alkaline Hydrolysis—also known as Green Cremation

is a method of preparing a dead human body for its final disposition. And like cremation, it’s a process that reduces human remains to bone fragments. But instead of flame, Alkaline Hydrolysis uses water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide (KOH) commonly found in household products, which when heated, dissolves the body, leaving behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid. Alkaline hydrolysis is the natural process a body undergoes after burial, which can take up to 25 years. Green Cremation essentially accelerates this natural process to 2-3 hours in a very quiet, controlled environment.

via Funeral Consumer Alliance

The process was explained in an early version of Ask a Mortician – Liquefying Bodies, and more recently in this video, in which an aquamation facility for pets is featured and the process is explained in detail.

Learn why it may well be the future of death care in Why Alkaline Hydrolysis is a Green Alternative.

In this article we explain how the process has already been in use with pets in Alkaline Hydrolysis – Seattle Style.

In addition to Alkaline Hydrolysis being a more sustainable alternative to cremation, this option also provides a path to restoring native Hawaiian burial practices.

Wondering if Alkaline Hydrolysis is legal in your state? Check this current list of laws. You should also know that if you live in a state that doesn’t currently offer Alkaline Hydrolysis, you may be able to find a funeral home in your home state that is partnered with a neighboring one that does provide this option.


Natural Organic Reduction (Human Composting)

Natural Organic Reduction (NOR) also known as human composting, was developed by Founding Order member Katrina Spade, through public benefit corporation, Recompose. As legalization spreads, other companies have begun providing this service as well. NOR uses the principles of nature to gently transform human remains into soil, so that our bodies can grow new life after we die.

But is composting the dead safe? Absolutely, we’ve been doing it with livestock for years.

[The process] is based on the principles of livestock mortality composting, a process which creates heat which in turn kills common viruses and bacteria. Research into mortality composting of livestock has found that the temperature inside the compost reaches 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which is high enough to kill off pathogens. Farmers are using mortality composting in order to safely dispose of their dead livestock, as well as to control odor and runoff. Recompose has fine tuned this process to be appropriate and meaningful for humans in an urban setting.

Watch Katrina’s TED Talk—Let’s Talk About Human Composting.

Learn more about the process here, and in A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost.

A grid of nine captures of different speakers at the public hearing SB 5001 Concerning Human Remains.

A bill legalizing the process in Washington State passed in 2019, and bills in other states like Oregon, California, Colorado, and Delaware have also been introduced.

After almost a decade of work and dedication, the first Recompose facility opened in Seattle in 2021. The first operating license for NOR was granted to green burial ground Herland Forest.

 


The Mushroom Burial Suit and Mushroom Coffins

The Infinity Burial Suit or “Mushroom Burial Suit” was invented by Founding Order member Jae Rhim Lee, who says: “The power of the suit is that it creates the need for meaningful planning and discussion around death.”

Photo of Jae Rhim Lee wearing her Mushroom Burial Suit.

The Infinity Burial Suit is a handcrafted garment that is worn by the deceased.

The Infinity Burial Suit has a built-in bio­mix, made up of mushrooms and other microorganisms that together do three things; aid in decomposition, work to neutralize toxins found in the body, and transfer nutrients to plant life.

via Coeio

View her viral TED Talk on the subject, My Mushroom Burial Suit.

Photo of an open Loop Cocoon coffin sitting on a grassy forest floor.

In 2020 another mushroom based product made headlines, a coffin called the Loop Cocoon from the Netherlands. The designers are calling it the “world’s first living coffin,” as it is composed of mycelium and wood chips, with a “bed” of moss, plants and various living microorganisms. The Loop Cocoon has already been used in at least one burial.

In the U.S., designer Shaina Garfield also created a coffin called “Leaves”, which incorporates mushrooms. Here, the body is wrapped in a cotton shroud, and secured to a wooden plank with woven fibers that contain fungal spores.

While these products claim to aid and accelerate the process of decomposition, their effectiveness is questionable. Like anything we purchase, effective or not, these items can be meaningful objects that hold value for the individual who choses it; serving as a symbol of their care for the environment, and subverting the offerings of a traditional funeral.

Jae Rhim Lee’s original mission to foster important conversations about death, remembrance, and the environment, as well as help to ignite our imaginations regarding what is possible, have certainly been accomplished.


Promession

Promession, by designer Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, is a conceptual machine that rapidly decomposes a corpse through a freeze drying process. At this point it is only at the concept/theory stage and is not available for use (hopefully this will change soon). In Kansas in 2019, efforts were made to legalize the option, however, progress was halted when Kansas Attorney General discovered that promession does not meet the definition of cremation under Kansas law and regulation.

In 2020 we dedicated an entire video to the concept of Promession and its progress so far.






Capsula Mundi

Capsula Mundi is an Italian company that has developed a biodegradable egg-shaped burial pod that replaces a casket.

Photo of three Capsula Mundi pods hanging in an empty room.

While not significantly different than natural burial, the designers created the pods in response to Italian laws that have made make un-casketed burial difficult. This product is currently a concept and is not actually available.

Learn more about The Biodegradable Burial Pod That Turns Your Body into a Tree.