Disposing of the Dead: Minor Modes

Deann K Gauthier, Nancy K Chaudoir, Rhonda D Evans. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

Upon death, practical decisions must be made concerning the final disposition of the physical body. These decisions are often guided by religious tradition, social custom, and personal preference. Thus disparate beliefs have yielded different ritual behavior in varying cultures and in various ages. For example, among the ancient Egyptians, religious belief in an afterlife held high priority and consequently shaped the preparations of deceased bodies for their final disposition. In this case, mummification, wooden coffins, stone sarcophagi, and tombs laden with various grave goods believed necessary for survival in the next life evolved to aid the deceased in their transition from this life to the next. Similarly, in the United States today, embalming the body prior to final disposition is quite common, although it is rarely required by law. The culture of embalming is largely related to the geographically mobile nature of modern society. Increasing numbers of individuals die in locations far removed from their surviving relatives who may reside in other states or nations. Several factors may converge, not the least of which is time passage, to produce a decision in favor of embalming to preserve the body from a rapid deterioration, thus allowing the arrival of bereaved family members from distant locations. In each of the above examples, decisions concerning the handling of the dead body differ because of decisions made on the basis of either religious tradition, custom, or personal concerns.

In modern Western cultures such as the United States, the preferred modes of disposal of human remains have been burial and cremation. For burials, the body may or may not be embalmed but, typically, is placed within a wooden or metal casket and then buried either in the ground or entombed in a mausoleum crypt. During cremation, the body is subjected to extreme heat to reduce it to a mineralized skeleton, which is further reduced to a granular consistency known as cremains or, more commonly, as ashes. These may be buried, scattered (according to state law), or kept by the family and memorialized in urns designed to hold cremated remains.

Beyond these two main categories of body disposition, however, lie other less practiced modes. These minor modes can be crudely grouped into two broad classes: (a) methods of preservation and (b) methods of destruction. Methods of preservation are deliberate procedures designed to indefinitely prolong the condition of the body at the time of clinical death. Although embalming may be considered such a method of preservation, it is generally believed to merely slow, not cease, the deterioration of bodily remains. Truer methods of preservation include processes such as cryonic suspension and mummification, although these are infrequently used for final disposition. Alternatively, methods of destruction are deliberate procedures designed to hasten the decomposition of the body. Cremation is one such method practiced widely around the world, although in the United States, it is less in favor than traditional burials. Still, there remains the question of what is to be done with the cremains. As noted above, most cremains are either buried, scattered, or stored in urns, but some find their way to a more creative final disposition. Examples of such minor modes of disposition include cremains-laced fireworks displays, shotgun shells, artificial reefs, and even rocket launches. Other minor methods of destruction include green burials, burial at sea, and donations of the body to nontraditional forms of scientific study. In sum, the final disposition of dead bodies exists as variations on two general themes: preservation or destruction. Within those themes lie minor, yet technically viable, modes. The purpose of this chapter is to explore the information currently available on these statistically, and perhaps socially, aberrant phenomena.

Methods of Preservation

Although it is true that corpses in the right circumstances have naturally formed into mummies or been accidentally preserved beneath layers of snow and ice, only deliberate methods of permanent preservation are under consideration here. In modern American society, the deliberate procedures intended to maintain the body in pristine condition from the time of clinical death include cryonic suspension and contemporary mummification.

Cryonic Suspension

Cryonic suspension refers to freezing the body after death to halt molecular physical decay. As a mode of final disposition for the deceased, the product is one of long-term cold storage. However, for most supporters of cryonic preservation, this product is not considered the final disposition. Rather, their goal for preservation is to maintain the body until such future time when scientific advances will be able to not only revive the body but also restore it to good health.

The concept of cryonic preservation was first introduced to the general public in 1964 by Robert C. W. Ettinger in his book The Prospect of Immortality. According to Ettinger, “No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, and even if freezing techniques are still crude when we die, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us” (p. 15). Ettinger was inspired by French biologist Jean Rostand’s work in cryobiology, in which he used glycerol to freeze frog sperm with little cellular damage, and other experiments testing the effects of low temperatures on living systems (Bryant and Snizek 1973). Ettinger postulated that if cellular movement could be slowed and restored, then a whole body could also undergo this process because death is not a sudden event but occurs in several stages. The stages of death include (a) clinical death (cessation of spontaneous heartbeat and respiration), (b) brain death (cessation of oxygen to the brain, (c) biological death (cessation of brain activity), and (d) cellular death (all organs and cells cease functioning). With technology such as respirators available to reverse the normal stages of death, brain death, not clinical death, has become the standard by which individuals are declared legally dead. To supporters of cryonics, this means that one can be frozen while clinically, but not completely, dead (Sheskin 1979:15).

However, even clinical death is not the ideal time at which to begin cryonic suspension because cellular damage occurs up to the time of clinical death. A better choice would be to initiate the freezing process prior to clinical death, a line of action that cryonics supporters believe is likely to result in fewer problems upon reanimation (or thawing) of the frozen body. Legal issues prevent such action, thus necessitating elaborate planning on the part of individuals desiring cryonic preservation.

When death is anticipated and cryonic specialists can be in attendance or cryonically trained funeral directors and hospital personnel can be acquired, there will be no need to “ice” the body immediately following clinical death. Otherwise, packing the body in ice is necessary to retard cell damage. If possible, heparin (an anticoagulant) is administered, or the individual is placed on a heart-lung resuscitator to artificially restore breathing and circulation until specialists arrive or the body can be transported to one of the two facilities in the United States that still accept new patients after they die (Hardt 1979:163; Mishra and Daley 2002). These include Alcor Life Extension Foundation and Cryonics Institute. Two other institutions are in operation but do not accept new patients at the time of this writing: the American Cryonics Society and Transtime.

Once specialists are in possession of the body, blood is replaced with antifreeze compounds such as glycerol to reduce ice formation and minimize freezing damage. The body is then wrapped in a protective covering and stored temporarily in a dry ice container for several days to lower the temperature to -40° F. It is then moved, head first, into an insulated container filled with liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature of the body to -320° F. Liquid nitrogen must be replenished regularly, but the container is not dependent on electricity, thereby safeguarding against electrical failures leading to premature thawing. An additional precaution is taken in placing the body head down into the liquid nitrogen; in the event of too much boil off of liquid nitrogen, key brain cells would be the last to be affected and memory retention thereby potentially ensured even in the face of other bodily traumas.

The price for cryonic suspension varies widely from one organization to the next. Alcor, located in Scottsdale, Arizona, is the largest organization, having approximately 56 patients in suspension and 590 members who pay $400 in annual dues in preparation for the suspension they hope to one day receive. Alcor patients are charged $50,000 for neurosuspension and $120,000 for whole-body suspension, although additional charges may be incurred for nonmembers, noncitizens, and remote standby charges (“Alcor Required Cost” 2002). The neurosuspension option refers to the practice of removing and freezing only the head or the brain of the legally dead person. Planning on future advances in regeneration technology, many who choose this option believe that a healthier, younger body could be cloned or regenerated to be attached to the head and/or brain via techniques perfected at some point in the future. As of July 2002, 36 Alcor patients are being maintained in neurosuspension (Mishra 2002).

On the other hand, patients with less means to purchase cryonic suspension or who wish a more economical route may choose to pay only $28,000 at Cryonics Institute (www.cryonics.org), located in Clinton Township, Michigan. Since its inception in 1976, this organization has never raised its whole-body suspension price, arguing that other organizations have done so for profit as opposed to Cryonics Institute’s stated concern about saving as many lives as possible by making the procedure as affordable as possible. Dues are unnecessary, if you pay a one-time lifetime membership fee of $1,250. A second option allows individuals to pay no membership fees but, rather, to pay annual dues of $120 and an increased suspension fee of $35,000. Cryonics Institute does not offer neurosuspension, but does provide long-term maintenance for patients suspended elsewhere (such as the American Cryonics Society) who are then transferred to Michigan.

The first human to undergo cryonic suspension was Dr. James H. Bedford in January 1967. Since that time, many others have attempted to join him but have failed to do so for a variety of reasons or were unfortunate enough to have selected an organization such as Cryonic Interment, Inc., which later went bankrupt and lost all its patients (Kastenbaum 1994-95:164). The successfully frozen individuals number at least 93 as of December 2001, along with approximately 2 dozen cats and dogs (Newman 2001). To date, no humans, except for those in the embryonic stage, have been frozen to liquid nitrogen temperature levels and been revived. Ettinger and his followers believe, however, that those currently in cryonic suspension are not truly dead but merely preserved for a time when the condition can be reversed and patients can not only be restored but also be improved (Kastenbaum 1994-95:167).

Despite the positive proof that most potential clients for cryonics would require, the cryonics movement is not over, nor does it show any sign of waning in the near future. If anything, cryonic suspensions and memberships are on the rise at both Alcor and Cryonics Institute. This trend seems to be gaining further strength since the July 5, 2002, death of the famed baseball player, Ted Williams, aged 83. Much media attention was given to the controversy in the Williams’ family over his alleged cryonic suspension at Alcor. The controversy involved whether or not Williams truly wished to be suspended cryonically, as his son John Henry Williams declared. Williams’ oldest child, Barbara Williams Ferrell, claims her father wanted to be cremated. A third sibling, Claudia Williams, supported her brother’s efforts to have Williams suspended. Both Claudia and John Henry are children from Williams’ third marriage, while Barbara is a child from his first marriage. Accusations of monetary motives were leveled, and the result was a legal dispute in Florida wherein both sides presented testimony and supporting documents to help a judge to determine the true intentions of their father. In the end, the eldest sister agreed to allow her father’s body to be frozen at Alcor. Her decision came after a judge decided to allow the adult children to inherit today from the trust left them by their father rather than in 2012 as originally mandated by the terms of the trust (“Ted Williams’ Family Resolves Dispute” 2002). This is not uncommon among heirs to disagree over final dispensation, but adding fuel to this particular disagreement is a procedure that has received much negative publicity and controversy.

Contemporary Mummification

The key to mummification is the removal of water. In Egypt before 3100 B.C., corpses were not buried in tombs but in simple graves at the edge of the desert in the hot, dry sands, which acted as a powerful desiccant leaving well-preserved bodies. When the Egyptians began to place the body into containers before burial, putrefaction occurred. As a result, experiments with mummification began in an attempt to preserve the body for its physical existence in the hereafter. Eventually, around 2600 B.C., a procedure was developed that could so well preserve the physical body that today observers can distinguish the features of someone who lived 1,500 years ago (Mims 2000:195-97). Variations in the procedures used often reflected status and economical considerations so that royal mummification was of the highest quality and expense (Kastenbaum 2001:365). It involved removal of the internal organs and fluids to dehydrate the remains using natron (a mixture of salts), which absorbs water and acts as an antiseptic. Mummification was eliminated after the Arab invasion of Egypt in A.D. 641, largely because the new Muslim inhabitants were opposed to violations of the corpse via cremation, postmortem examination, or dissection (Mims 2000:135).

In 1996 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, archeologist Bob Brier and a team of experts attempted to re-create the ancient Egyptian art of mummification by mummifying a human cadaver. In doing so, they believe they have found the answers to a number of important questions regarding the tools and techniques ancient practitioners required to complete a successful mummification. In the years since completion of the experiment and publication of their study in 2001, no evidence of decay has been detected, despite the fact that the corpse has been maintained at room temperature at the State Anatomy Board in Maryland. In the meantime, other scientists have begun using tissue samples of the mummy in an attempt to reproduce its DNA, attempts that have failed in ancient Egyptian mummies, perhaps because of degradation brought on by the passage of time or the mummification process itself. Their findings may one day help to establish the origins of the Egyptians or genealogical connections between known and unknown mummies (Brier 2001:50).

In the meantime, it may be possible to join the ancient Egyptians in mummification of the dead. In Salt Lake City, Utah, an organization now offers this mode of preservation as an alternative to more traditional final dispositions. The Church of Summum (www.summum.org) is a nonprofit group founded in 1975 by Claude Rex Nowell. Nowell legally changed his name in 1980 to Summum Bonum Amon Ra, although he also goes by the names Amen and Corky Ra. The name Summum is a Latin term referring to the sum total of all creation. The philosophy of the Church of Summum follows closely to that of ancient Egyptian customs, emphasizing meditation, sex, and mummification (Perkins 2001). Ra performed his first mummifications in the early 1980s on his own cat and dog. In 1986, Ra met Dr. John Chew, former head of the mortuary science department at Lynn University in Florida. The two teamed up to provide mummification to the public. Ra was to provide the technique and Chew the training of mortuary science students. Tests of the process were conducted at Lynn University on 30 bodies donated to medical science. In addition, approximately 40 cats, dogs, and other animals have been mummified by Summum. No human clients have received the service as yet, although Ra claims more than 140 persons have contracted with Summum to be mummified upon their death (Wolf 2000).

The mummification procedure used at Summum varies some from that of the ancient Egyptians. Internal organs are removed, washed, and replaced in the unrepaired body cavity. The organs of ancient mummies were preserved separately in four containers. Unlike ancient morticians, Summum does not remove the brain. The modern mummy is submerged in a secret solution for between 30 and 77 days, whereas successful ancient mummification procedures likely did not involve submersion at all (Brier 2001:48-49). Finally, modern mummification also involves the application of a polyurethane membrane over the gauze wrappings, followed by a layer of fiberglass and resin and a final amber resin that completely surrounds the mummy in its bronze or steel mummiform encasement. Summum states that because of these differences, modern mummies remain soft and supple, and “the DNA remains intact indefinitely… [lending] itself to new considerations and implications for the future as scientists perfect the technique of cloning” (“Mummification …A Philosophical Examination” 2001).

Because of its nonprofit status, the Church of Summum claims to operate on the basis of donations, although costs are clearly delineated on their Web site (www.summum.org). Mummification costs $20,000 for time and materials, but additional charges for air transportation ($5,000 and up) and a bronze mummiform ($36,000) apply, bringing the total to about $60,000. Postmummification storage costs and arrangements are left to survivors, as are memorial or funeral services. Similarly, pet mummification is listed as costing $6,000, although this price includes the bronze mummiform. Oversized animals, such as large-breed dogs, may cost up to $28,000, whereas charges for smaller pets run lower ($1,700 for a parrot). Along with costs are suggestions for methods of payment. Payment for animal mummification must be via personal check, money order, or cashier’s check. For humans, a life insurance policy is recommended, paid through Summum and making Summum the sole beneficiary.

The philosophy supporting contemporary mummification seems a complex mixture of religious and worldly concerns. Summum doctrine espouses a belief in reincarnation for those who have achieved a “sumsoshoeugenic state” (perfectly preserved through mummification), perhaps in the same body or even in one cloned from the DNA of a perfectly preserved body. In that event, an emphasis on healthy living and physical fitness is also part of the Summum philosophy so that the legacy of the body is one worthy of such arduous preservation.

Methods of Destruction

Deliberate destruction of the body may involve several methods or combinations of methods. Accelerated destruction can be achieved via the fairly uncommon methods of burial at sea or green burial. Alternatively, a combination of two practices, one historical and one modern, may hasten destruction through exposure to the elements for scientific study. Finally, cremation may be combined with creative final dispositions as occurs in cremains-laced consumer-oriented custom products such as art, fireworks, ammunitions, artificial reefs, and rocket launches.

Burial at Sea

As a mode of final disposition, burial at sea is an ancient practice that no longer occurs with much frequency. As a mode of disposition, burial at sea is recognizable as a method intent on accelerating destruction of the body, either by aquatic life and processes or when performed along with cremation. Because bodies were sometimes diseased and therefore hazardous to other crew members and because no means existed for storage without the odor of putrefaction, burial at sea was often the best course of action on long voyages. Concurrently, superstitious beliefs relating to travel with a dead body urged a rapid disposal at sea (Hardt 1979:113-14). Several different variations of the practice have been documented in the literature: ship burials, naval burials, and civilian burials.

Around A.D. 650, Norsemen began to bury their dead in ships. Prior to this time in Scandinavian history, ships were important religious symbols, often carved onto grave markers and even built around the grave itself to facilitate the trip into the hereafter. During pre-Viking times, the Norsemen began to use real ships, particularly for warrior chieftains or wealthy Vikings. Occasional ship burials of women have also been located, but high status most likely marks their exception to the otherwise male monopoly on ship burials. The honored dead were buried within their ship along with any possessions or food they would need in the afterlife. The ship was usually buried inland near a river or the sea, facing the water, anchor up, and ready to sail. Later Vikings placed the dead in ships, set them on fire, and then set them to drift (Turner 1976:52-54).

Another more literal interpretation of burial at sea has been conducted according to naval customs, in which the body is ceremonially commended to the sea by sliding it from a death board over the side of the ship. Prior to this, the body was usually made ready by the sail maker who would wrap it in a canvas sheet, weighting the sheet at the feet. The canvas was then stitched closed, and often the final stitch would be passed through the sailor’s nose. After one final night watch for the dead, all hands would present in reversed order of rank for the actual burial, to emphasize the egalitarian nature of death. As the chaplain recited, “We commit this body to the deep,” the death board on which the body had lain all night was tilted and the body sank into the sea (Hardt 1979:114).

Burial at sea was actively used in the U.S. Navy through World War II and can now be requested. Today, burial at sea is available for any military personnel who have not been dishonorably discharged, U.S. civilians in the Military Sealift Command, dependents of members of the military, and “other U.S. citizens determined to be eligible by the chief of naval operations… due to notable service or outstanding contributions to the United States” (“Veterans Wait for Sea Burial” 1999). Only five naval bases now conduct burials at sea, and ships do not sail only for the purpose of burial but conduct services in the course of normal duty. This translates to an average 1- to 2-month waiting period for final disposition, although the Associated Press (“Veterans Wait for Sea Burial” 1999) reported that the remains of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife, and sister-in-law were buried at sea almost immediately, bypassing 36 deceased veterans whose families had been waiting as long as 6 months for a ship to become available. Because the ship is deployed at the time of the committal ceremony, family members are not allowed to be present. The commanding officer of the ship will notify the family of the date, time, and longitude and latitude of the committal and provide pictures or video of the ceremony when possible. Unfortunately, the National Archives do not have detailed files on the practice of burial at sea, so it is nearly impossible to estimate the numbers of such burials or their locations without extensive research into ship deck logs themselves (Barry L. Zerby, National Archives and Records Administration, personal communication, December 5, 2001).

The ceremony contains both military and religious elements and involves a firing squad, six to eight casket bearers, and a bugler. When possible, the ship is stopped and placed at half-mast; the course is resumed as the last notes of “Taps” sound. Casketed remains are covered by the flag. Casket bearers wear mourning bands on their left arms and are arranged by height. The casket is carried feet first. It is placed on a board such that the body’s feet are over the starboard side of the ship. When the reading of the committal has commenced, the board is raised to allow the casket to slide into the water as the casket bearers retain the flag. This is followed by the benediction, firing three shots into the air, and playing “Taps” on the bugle. At the end of the service, the flag is folded and presented to the commanding officer.

In the case of cremated remains, the commanding officer will either open the urn and scatter the ashes at the appropriate time or launch the urn and its contents from under a flag-draped plank as is done with casketed remains (Barry L. Zerby, personal communication, December 5, 2001). In most modern instances of burial at sea, cremains, rather than bodies, are disposed. Likely, this is due to the Mortuary Affairs policy of requiring casketed bodies to be housed at a funeral home near the port of departure. The expense of such a requirement would be incurred by the person authorized to direct disposition, not by the Office of Mortuary Affairs. Because final disposition may be many months in the future, storage costs for casketed bodies could be prohibitive, thus encouraging the use of cremation. In addition, cremated burials are performed free of charge (U.S. Navy 2001).

Civilian burials at sea are a third variation of this mode of body disposition. Such burials are regulated by the Maritime Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (40 CFR 229.1). This act covers the disposal of both cremated and noncremated remains disposed in open waters from either airplane or boat. Inland water burial (such as in coastal bays) is regulated by the Clean Water Act (codified generally as 33 U.S.C. 1251-1387) and requires a permit from the proper state agency. Remains must be prepared in accordance with U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, or other responsible authorities, such as local health departments. Both cremated and noncremated remains must be disposed of at least 3 nautical miles from land. In addition to this requirement, noncremated remains must also be buried in water at least 600 feet deep and arranged to sink quickly and permanently. In several locations along the Florida and Gulf of Mexico Coasts, noncremated remains must be deposited 1,800 feet deep. Only wreathes or plants that will decompose quickly in water can accompany either type of remains. Within 30 days of the burial, it must be reported in writing to the Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2001).

For civilians wishing to be buried at sea, organizations now exist to provide these services with full compliance to all applicable regulations, including government reporting. One company, Sea Services (www.seaservices.com), will perform scatterings of cremains nearly anywhere worldwide by air or sea. They also provide burials for noncremated remains, although regulations require deeper depths and thus a larger vessel and crew. The casket must be specially prepared to ensure a quick descent and secure anchoring to the ocean floor. Such burials are much more expensive and will vary in price according to location and local requirements. Regardless of the nature of the burial (casketed or cremated), survivors can choose to join Sea Services for charter voyages, but this is not required. Charters begin at $675 for six passengers who may plan and direct their voyage. Alternatively, for those survivors who do not wish to attend the burial, a private service can be performed. It is also the most economical option at $200. In either an accompanied or unaccompanied burial, Sea Services does not videotape or photograph the burial. Thus for survivors who wish to be certain the ceremony took place or was performed as directed, the best choice is to accompany the crew. The service is advertised as appealing, even to veterans, because it provides a wider choice of locations and services than does the U.S. Navy.

Green Burial

Green burials are also known as natural, woodland, ecological, nature park, or countryside burials. The purpose of this type of burial is to return the body to the earth in an environmentally sensitive manner. Thus caskets must be constructed of nontoxic, biodegradable materials (preferably from ecologically sustainable sources); otherwise, burial shrouds must be used. Vaults are not permitted, requiring burial directly in the soil. Preparation of the body for burial is also strictly regulated to prevent use of toxic embalming fluids. For bodies requiring transport across state lines, infusion with saline can often legally substitute for embalming fluids that may be otherwise required for transport. Cold storage can also be arranged when necessary in order to circumvent transportation problems.

The philosophy of green burials is to facilitate decomposition in such a way that human remains will eventually become a part of nature again, without harming the environment in the process. Accordingly, other aspects of green memorialization reflect this concern for living things: careful removal and replacement of topsoil after burials, prohibition of headstones and artificial flowers, and minimal vegetation management. Some memorial nature parks encourage the use of natural markers such as a native tree, shrub, or rock, although nonnative stones from the same geological strata may also be approved. Visitation is generally restricted to designated trails, which often make use of old logging roads. Any other trails are first approved by a team of botanists. Some areas may not be accessible to visitors, particularly those in wheelchairs. The parks often double as wildlife preserves and may even limit interment density to prevent the vast majority of parkland from being disturbed by burials. Concerns about water quality and ground contamination figure largely in the location of the preserves and in monitoring groundwater as needed. In parks where this issue is paramount, cremated remains may be accepted or even specified over the burial of noncremated remains. Most woodland burial sites discourage cremation, arguing that cremation uses fossil fuels and contributes to air pollution, whereas natural burials are believed to be more environmentally benign. Many preserves will also consider adding soil amendments such as activated charcoal to graves, if necessary, to prevent environmental and water contamination.

Advocates of green burials view more traditional burials as unnatural for delaying the earth from contacting bodies for decades or even centuries due to the use of concrete vaults and nonbiodegradable caskets. “They don’t become a part of nature again, taken up into roots and becoming a flower, or a tree, perhaps a berry, perhaps the bird that eats the berry. They just lie there and putrefy” (Kaufman 1999). Support for green burials, however, lies mainly outside the United States, particularly in Britain where more than 80 such parks currently operate. One U.S. example of green burial philosophy exists in Westminster, South Carolina, where Memorial Ecosystems (www.memorialecosystems.com) offers green burials priced between $2,300 and $4,300. This fee includes burial plot, marker, opening/closing, casket, and miscellaneous items. Green burials can also be achieved via privately owned land, as long as these backyard burials follow state and local ordinances. Ultimately, this mode of final disposition uses accelerated destruction of human remains to enhance the preservation of the chain of life for other living creatures.

Putrefaction Research

Exposure is a practice in societies such as India, where the Parsi community leaves its dead on scaffolds to be devoured by birds of prey (Despelder and Strickland 1999:291). As a form of body disposition, however, exposure is not generally practiced nor viewed as acceptable in mainstream American society. Donation to medical science is slightly better received, even if infrequently implemented. Since 1971, the two modes have been combined, however, in the form of the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. To achieve this disposition, individuals donate their bodies to science after their death in a way that few other Americans choose, to allow forensic study of the process of decomposition as it is affected and even accelerated by exposure to the elements. Officially known as the Anthropology Research Facility, the Body Farm is the only outdoor field laboratory in the world that seeks to scientifically document postmortem change. The project began when William Bass was hired to become head of the anthropology department at UT Knoxville. He was also the Tennessee state forensic anthropologist and was called to help identify bodies of the dead. Prior to this appointment, Bass had worked regularly on similar cases in Kansas, but the bodies in Kansas were often reduced to skeletal remains. In Tennessee, however, many of the bodies still retained flesh and were infested with insects. Bass consulted the academic literature to discover that little existed describing rates of decay, and he set himself the task of changing that. The University of Tennessee owned approximately 3 acres outside of Knoxville that were available for use, and after Bass was able to locate several bodies, he began a project that has yielded numerous helpful findings. In fact, most of the key information that forensic scientists around the world use to establish time of death come from research conducted at the Body Farm (Locke 2001).

The research has revealed that, of the many factors that affect how a body decomposes, the two key factors are climate and insects. Upon death, decay begins immediately, and as putrefaction occurs, a smell is given off that attracts insects. Measuring and recording the process and the factors that accelerate, delay, or otherwise disrupt it have been the focus of forensic anthropologists and forensic entomologists since the farm’s inception. Law enforcement has found the research so helpful that staff at the University of Tennessee regularly conduct training for police and FBI investigators. Medical examiners and others in death work also attend. Students trained at the Body Farm not only interpret crime scenes around the world but also help to document war crimes in the Balkans and identify the remains of American soldiers in Southeast Asia.

Bodies for the farm come from three sources. Nearly 300 persons have willed their bodies to the Body Farm when they die; many have already arrived. A second source is via donations by individuals or their survivors to a more generic science. Finally, the facility receives bodies from the state that remain unidentified or unclaimed and that would cost the state $700 each to bury. Upon receipt, the bodies are placed in car trunks, shallow graves, suitcases, under piles of leaves, under water, in expensive caskets, in the sun, and any other way that may prove useful in unraveling the mysteries of death and putrefaction. Although remains can be returned to survivors, most will join the extensive skeletal collection housed in a storage room in the UT Anthropology Department. Currently, the collection includes over 235 skeletons, but approximately three times each year, the collection grows, as graduate students in the department collect all sufficiently decomposed bodies for processing. Processing involves cleaning the skeletal remains with hot water, bleach, and detergent, then removing remaining flesh until the bones are clean. They are then dried and carefully labeled so that reassembly can occur if ever necessary. Each skeleton is then placed into a 3-foot × 1-foot box and stored in rows alongside other donated bodies, having reached their final disposition. Once each year, a memorial service is held in honor of the donors who make possible so many scientific experiments.

Cremation Options

Although 75% of the dead are buried in the ground or entombed in mausoleums, cremations are growing in popularity. Because few regulations exist concerning the disposal of cremated human remains, survivors can choose from a number of creative options when deciding how to manage the cremains. Cremains are sometimes buried or entombed in cemetery plots. Some are even buried or scattered on private property or stored in urns designed for this purpose. A fairly new market has evolved to offer dualduty container designs such as wind chimes and keepsake lockets. Even more creative options are now available to those interested in truly minor modes of disposition. One such option is Eternal Reefs (www.eternalreefs.com), a company located in Atlanta that uses artificial reef modules constructed of caste concrete to bury cremains at sea. The concrete balls were originally developed by Reef Ball Development Group to create artificial reefs that would come to be used to help rebuild damaged coral reefs around the world. In 1998, Don Brawley, cofounder of Reef Ball Development Group, created Eternal Reefs, a permanent option for disposing of cremated remains while simultaneously creating new life in the form of a reef habitat.

Unlike ash scattering, a memorial reef gives survivors a living memorial in a specific location to visit when desired. Although locations are dictated by federal, state, and local governments, requests for certain locations can sometimes be accommodated. The reefs are designed to last more than 500 years and include bronze plaques for inscriptions, which divers can later use for identification of specific reef modules. When the reef unit is being cast, cremated remains are mixed into the concrete. After curing for approximately 1 month, the reef is deployed in the permitted location. Two basic types of reefs are offered: individual reef balls and community reefs. Both include casting, transportation, final deployment, and dedication. Each individual memorial reef has a bronze plaque affixed to it with name, dates, and inscription information. Community reefs involve mixing the cremains of multiple individuals into one complete reef system with multiple units. One plaque inscribed with the names of all of the individuals is affixed to the pinnacle unit. The community reef is priced at $850, while individual reefs range in price from $1,500 to $3,200, not including mortuary and cremation services. Approximately 72 reefs off three states have already been deployed.

A second creative option involves packing cremains into fireworks, an alternative offered by Nick Drobnis, president of Celebrate Life (www.celebratelife.net). As long as state and local laws do not prohibit the scattering of cremains or the use of fireworks, cremains may be disposed via specially modified firework shells to create a custom show, complete with music. Survivors also receive a color photograph of the display mounted on a commemorative plaque. A small, invisible portion of the cremains can be recessed into the body of the plaque at no additional cost. Prices begin at $3,250 and end at $6,000, exclusive of mortuary and cremation services.

Similarly, cremains can be incorporated into hunting paraphernalia, as offered by Jay Knudsen, Sr., owner of Canuck’s Sportsman’s Memorials, Inc. Knudsen places ashes into duck decoys and even shotgun shells that will be used for hunting. In this way, creative memorialization of a favorite hobby are celebrated by survivors. Prices range from $300 to $800, depending on the nature of the request, which number nearly 25 per year (Graham 2001). Another option may be to incorporate cremains into framed custom paintings as Bettye Brokl offers through her company, Eternally Yours (www.memorialart. com). For between $300 and $1,000, several tablespoons of cremains are permanently adhered onto finished artwork (not mixed in the paint). Pet memorials are also available.

Finally, a company in Houston, Texas will dispose of a symbolic portion of the deceased’s cremated remains by rocket launch. Charles Chafer is cofounder of Celestis, Inc. (www.celestis.com), which began in the early 1980s to attempt to launch private rockets into space. In 1997, Celestis introduced the service to the general public and has since launched cremains for more than 120 individuals. Options include the Earthview, Lunar, or Voyager services. The Earthview service is priced at $5,300 and launches the cremains into the Earth’s orbit where it remains from as few as 10 years to as much as 240 years, depending on the memorial satellite selected. Eventually, the satellite will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere as it “harmlessly vaporizes, blazing like a shining star in final tribute.” The Lunar service was introduced in 1998 and places the cremains in Lunar orbit or on the moon’s surface for $12,500. The Voyager service launches the cremated remains into deep space and also is priced at $12,500. If a launch fails to occur, a second symbolic portion of cremains may be required to successfully complete a second launch. Earthview Service I was introduced in 2002 as a way to provide lower priced services to more customers. Priced at $995, this new service launches a 1-gram sample of the cremated remains into the Earth’s orbit.


The final disposition of the physical body after death involves a surprisingly large array of options beyond the traditional two. Although attitudes and beliefs toward death certainly influence one’s preferences regarding body disposition, so, too, do the variety of options available. In modern pluralistic societies such as the United States, there will be many perceptions of appropriate ways to handle the deceased, and individuals can select from among them in defining their own death customs. Death rituals are evolving because of innovative choices such as those discussed here as well as others, including drive-through mortuaries, cybermourning, virtual cemeteries, and digital flowers. Although some concern has been expressed over the erosion of traditional rituals, the newer options still serve to confirm “the human desire to make a connection with others in our bereavement” (DeSpelder and Strickland 1999:303-4).

Yet why are some individuals eschewing traditional rituals and choosing innovation? Some are likely doing so to retain a sense of autonomy and individuality, even in death. They are the rebels among us, who eat without tableware and dance on the roof while studying the arts and Socrates. They don’t walk in a straight line and they won’t sit still in their chairs. To do anything traditional would be against their nature, so they select cremation in coral reefs or burial at sea or a huge fireworks display. Still others are seeking to delay or deny death by refusing to die. Some deny death when they “deanimate” through cryonic suspension. For some, this is a matter of vanity. They see themselves as having much still to offer, many important things to achieve. They want to use their intelligence for as long as they have been given, and longer.

For others who are nonbelievers in any religious afterlife, it is religion itself that kills people by denying them the option to choose life. For example, supporters of cryonics are often atheists, stating that to die is not to gain, although this message is taught in many religions. Rather, they believe, to die is to lose, and if this world is all there is, then they want to remain in it. On the other hand, some of the participants in preservation modes of disposition reflect a spiritual longing in their desire to create a better, heavenly world through technology. Still others may be like some journalists have suggested of Ted Williams: egotistical and seeking symbolic immortality.

Whatever their reasons, followers of the minor modes of body dispensation remain, for now, in the minority. What remains to be seen is how these modes of disposition will fare in the future. Will methods of preservation prevail over methods of destruction? Will modes that today are minor ascend to fashionable heights? Or will they, too, “go gentle into that good night” (Dylan Thomas, quoted in Bennett and Foley 1997:150)?” Current trends suggest a growth in not only cryonic membership but also natural burial. Likewise, creative dispensation of cremated remains is on the rise. The Body Farm grows in numbers each year and has helped to establish a database of information to solve crimes all over the world. Predictions are always risky, but with the overpopulation of the globe and the shortage of available lands for traditional burial, one could easily justify a claim that minor methods of body disposal will come to exceed traditional modes sometime in the near future. Two very good examples support this prediction: On the West Coast, particularly in California, cremations outnumber burials 3 to 1. Mausoleums have become towers because the only space available is up. It is quite likely to expect this to occur elsewhere in the United States and to expect that many individuals will seek other innovative ways of disposing of their remains.