Post-mortem futures

By Robert Hickson 03/11/2014


With Halloween just past it’s a good time to consider end of life futures. While we are getting better at postponing death (including getting better at bringing those close to death back to life, transplanting “dead” hearts, as well as some successes against cancers), we’re not cheating it.

People of European ancestry have in recent times often been good at ignoring death, or viewing it as “sordid and dirty”. It’s largely a “private and often technical affair”. Some undertakers, as well as others, are trying to change that view.

However, compared with some European countries, New Zealand funerals are often more personal and celebrate the life of the deceased, rather than being a quick impersonal duty.

With continuing technological developments and the aging population structure death, and what leads up to it, is it likely that dying will become even more technical and private? The emergence, for example, of a funereal-industrial complex? Or will there be a revival of older attitudes to death and dying?

Aspects of both are appearing.

While medicine is getting better at prolonging life, and managing pain, there are those who have, or say they will refuse treatment when they get to a certain age or state of decline. There is also a slow spread of voluntary euthanasia legislation in the West. This probably won’t result in a sudden large upsurge in assisted suicide

Or perhaps, with the increasing use of healthcare robots, will a class of “kindly killer” bots emerge that help those who wish to end their lives without having to ask friends of family to help?

More options for disposing of the body are becoming available.

High tech methods of body disposal are emerging – such as using alkaline hydrolysis or liquid nitrogen as alternatives to cremation and burial. Being turned into a diamond is also a possibility.

While cremation is now more common than burial in New Zealand (around 70%), and some other countries, there is still a scarcity of land for burials. Particularly as more people move to urban areas. Cemeteries are filling up (in the UK, US, and here too).

Competition for space is only going to increase. Around half a million 80+ year olds are expected to be alive in New Zealand by 2050, three times the number as now.

In some London cemeteries you can lease an existing grave site to put another body in, while in the US pre-used or new grave sites are being sold on-line.

There’s a possibility, too, that in the future in some places there may be competition between people and pets for burial sites.

To save on space Japan, and Hong Kong too, have developed “high tech” multi-story “cemeteries”. They seem rather like a bank’s safe deposit system. Once you type in your access code your beloved’s cremated remains are automatically brought to you in a mourning room, and then returned to the warehouse. While in Norway, bodies could also be placed in high-rise cemeteries. These, though, are only recent variations on a longer established theme. Several cities have been stacking bodies for decades.

Space “burials” can be an option for the well to do, but you still need to cremate or render down the body on earth first.

A more noble option is to turn your mortal remains into a reef ball to help restore ecosystems.

3D printing hasn’t yet entered the funeral sphere, but I expect it won’t be long before print your own coffin and tombstone offerings become available.

Natural and more environmentally friendly funeral practices are also becoming more popular, although greening up the funeral business is a slow process.

There are a range of current options for reducing impacts – including using cardboard, wicker or flax caskets, and the avoidance of embalming. More people are becoming interested in natural burials, with a range of towns and cities already permitting them.

There is growing concern about the environmental impacts of burials and cremations – mercury from fillings, the toxicity of lithium batteries from implanted electronics  embalming chemicals and the by-products of cremation, not to mention the space required to bury all the baby boomer generation.

Build your own coffin clubs are appearing in New Zealand, which also help people think about and discuss death. DIY funerals are becoming more common in the US as costs rise, and will probably spread (regulations permitting), aided by the internet.

What about those left alive? Funeral services are likely to change to meet the demands of their “client’s” friends and families. I’m not writing about drive through funeral parlours  (California got there sooner).

I mean providing cafes and childcare. Future cemeteries may be more than just places to visit the deceased but good places to undertake healthy activities, like lunches, yoga and weddings.

In the UK the Future Cemetery is using augmented reality, apps and street performances among other things to make graveyard roaming more of an “experience” and help people explore old grave sites.

So, the future of death will continue to be a mixture of the sacred and profane. With lots more people dying over the coming decades it will be harder to ignore the act and the consequences, so it’s something the living will have to get used to one way or the other.

Some though still resist the concept of death, and view it only as a temporary phase until science catches up. So they opt for cold storage.

A more sensible and noble (or utilitarian) alternative is to donate your body to science.