Accepted Paper:

Environmentally friendly dead: death and environmental ideologies in early 21st century societies  


Elisabeth Anstett (CNRS)

Paper short abstract:

This paper aims at questioning the birth of new burial technologies claimed as “eco friendly”, involving the freezing of corpses in nitrogen and their transformation in "organic" powder, raising the issue of the impact of environmental ideologies on nowadays representations of death and dead bodies.

Paper long abstract:

In 2001, Swedish biologist born in 1956, Suzanne Wiigh-Masäk, patented a process named Promession, involving the freezing of human remains in liquid nitrogen before their mechanical shattering and drying in order to transform them in an "organic" powder, explicitly claiming for a new and "environmentally friendly" form of burial with "human beings fully integrated with the natural ecological cycle […] instead of being a burden to the planet". Mrs Wiigh-Masäk has since then created a company promoting and commercializing the process all over the world, with customer costs considered as "equivalent to cremation and less than traditional burial".

Although Promession technology hasn't been fully implemented yet (both for technical and legal issues), it has been rapidly and favorably received in various countries such as Sweden, Switzerland or more recently South Korea, all contexts simultaneously framed by long lasting tradition of cremation but also spirits of capitalism and Protestantism.

Both this invention and its worldwide reception ask to anthropologists new questions about the social legacy of "environmental ideologies" in the field of burial practices, as much as about representations of dead bodies in nowadays societies. Legal and ethical issues raised by the mechanical treatment of corpses, as much as by their conversion into an "ecological resource", challenge indeed the very status given to human remains and forced us to pay close attention to the transformation occurring in the collective viewing of death.

Panel P20
New immortalities: anthropological reflections on the procurement, transformation and use of human cadaveric tissue