Vibrated into particles when you die? Maybe someday in Kansas

Jonathan Shorman
The Kansas City Star

Topeka, Kan. — When you die, do you want to be buried? Cremated?

How about being cryogenically frozen and then vibrated into tiny pieces? If you want to spend the hereafter in Kansas, you may eventually get the chance if legal and regulatory issues are resolved.

A new option called promession, the creation of a Swedish biologist, holds the potential to make burial more environmentally friendly, its proponents say. A body effectively reduced to small particles and buried would turn to soil in a matter of months.

While promession has yet to be tried on human remains – only pigs have so far had the privilege – the company pursuing the idea regards Kansas as fertile ground for the new method. So much so that the firm, Promessa, has one of its handful of U.S. representatives based in Overland Park. And a state lawmaker may introduce a bill in 2020 to clear the way.

In promession, the body is frozen using liquid nitrogen, then vibrated into particles. Water is removed from the particles, which are then freeze-dried. The remains are buried in a degradable coffin.

But in a legal opinion released just before Thanksgiving, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt found that promession doesn’t meet the definition of cremation under Kansas law and regulation.

In cremation, the body is reduced to bone fragments and flesh is typically burned up by fire. In promession, both flesh and bone are reduced to particles. That difference is why the process does not legally count as cremation, according to Schmidt.

The decision was a surprise to Promessa representative Rachel Caldwell.

“We thought this would be no hang-ups whatsoever,” Caldwell said.

Interest has been growing in so-called green burials that minimize the environmental impact. A 2017 survey of more than 1,000 American adults 40 and older by the National Funeral Directors Association found 54% were interested in “green memorialization options” that could include biodegradable caskets and formaldehyde-free embalming.

“Newer, greener methods of burial, like promession, may help conserve resources and less pollution into the air or ground,” Zack Pistora, legislative director of the Kansas Sierra Club, said. “Why not rest in peace with peace of mind?”

Schmidt cautioned that a decision on whether promession is permissible under other state laws falls to the Kansas Board of Mortuary Arts. The board’s executive secretary didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Caldwell said Kansas is the first state where she has sought a formal legal opinion because of what she views as the state’s relatively lax cremation laws. For example, Kansas doesn’t require fire to be used in cremation. That’s a helpful distinction because promession freezes bodies instead of burning them.

Caldwell asked her state representative, Overland Park Democrat Dave Benson, to seek the attorney general’s opinion. Benson said Friday he wasn’t surprised by Schmidt’s conclusions because in his experience, attorneys general are hesitant to provide new interpretations of law.

Benson suggested he may draft a bill to authorize promession because of interest in alternatives to traditional burial or cremation, and because he’s taken “a little bit of a libertarian” view.

“If that’s what you want, hey, where’s the government’s interest in telling you not to?” Benson said.

Promession has gained attention over the past decade, often when news outlets mention it as an alternative to traditional burial or cremation, said its creator, Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Masak.

“This is going to revolutionise the cremation industry,” Wiigh-Masak told WIRED UK in 2013.

Caldwell said she’s optimistic it could be used on a human body in the United States within five years. Promessa hears from people all over the world who want to undergo the procedure when they die, she said.

Still, it’s likely to take a long time to turn promession into a reality.