USA Science and Engineering Festival: The Blog

Our Posthumous Footprint

by Joe Schwarcz PhD, Author, Expo Performer and AT&T sponsored Nifty Fifty program speaker

i-a2e1dd9aba10ed79522bbfa16dbed276-Joe_Schwarcz2.jpgThey say you can’t take it with you. Actually that isn’t quite true. Your earthly possessions stay behind, but there is something that you do take with you. Your body! And decisions have to be made about what is to become of it. Burial and cremation are the traditional choices, but now there is another option on the horizon. A “green” option. You can be resomated. In technical terms, your remains can be subjected to “alkaline hydrolysis.” In somewhat less elegant language, you can be washed down the drain.

Why should anyone consider being hydrolyzed? Doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but on the other hand being consumed by maggots and bacteria, or being set ablaze and turned into ash hath no particular charms either. But resomation leaves less of an environmental footprint. There’s no concern about embalming chemicals such as formaldehyde leaching into the water table or mercury from dental fillings being spewed into the air by energy-guzzling crematoria. Cremation requires a temperature of about 1000 degrees Celcius [1832 degrees Farenheit], which means that a lot of fuel has to be burned, and that means a good dose of carbon dioxide being released. Then there is the problem of mercury from dental amalgams. This is not insignificant, with a number of European countries already requiring the filtering of mercury emissions from crematorium smokestacks. Resomation uses much less energy than cremation and dental amalgam remnants are easily separated from the remains.

Time now to look into the science. We’ve seen horror movies where a body is dumped into a vat of acid only to emerge as a skeleton after a few minutes of ferocious sizzling. That is, let us say, poetic license. But flesh can dissolve in acid. It just takes a bit of time. Actually, “dissolve” is not exactly the right term. “Decompose,” is more appropriate. Proteins break down into peptides and individual amino acids, while fats are converted to fatty acids and glycerol. The end result is more of a sludge than a solution, but the body as such does disappear.

The notion of “dissolving” a body in acid first came to the public’s attention in 1896 when Herman Mudgett, alias Dr. Henry H. Holmes, was convicted of killing at least twenty-seven people for the purpose of providing skeletons to medical schools. He used copious amounts of acid to remove all traces of flesh from the bones. And just a year later, in a highly celebrated case, Adolph Louis Luetgert, known as the “sausage king of Chicago,” was convicted of murdering his wife and disposing of her body by dissolving it in acid.

Curiously, 1896 also saw the publication of Melvin Davisson Post’s short story, “The Corpus Delecti” in which a murderer dumps a victim’s body into sulphuric acid and escapes conviction because no body is found. Did this story germinate an idea in Mudgett’s or Luetgert’s head? We’ll never know. But it seems the idea of “no body-no conviction” was firmly in the mind of John George Haigh, perpetrator of one of the most bizarre mass murders in history.

Haigh killed at least six people in the 1940s, apparently to secure their possessions, and got rid of their bodies by dumping them into vats of acid. When arrested, confident that he could not be convicted in the absence of remains, he arrogantly admitted to his crimes. He even described how his true motivation was a need to drink the blood of his victims, inspiring the British press to label him the “vampire killer.” Whether Haigh was truly bloodthirsty literally, or concocted the story hoping for an insanity defense isn’t clear, but what is clear is that he was overconfident about no remains being found. A forensic team sifting through Haigh’s acid sludge found dentures, gallstones and part of a left foot. He was sentenced to be hung until dead. And he was.

More recently, in the 1980s, Mafia boss Filippo Marchese had his enemies disposed of in vats of acid in his Palermo home. Justice sort of prevailed when he suffered the same fate in a revenge killing. Mexican drug cartel hit men have also immersed victims in acid in a bid to dispose of evidence. But, as has been shown by forensic researchers using pig carcasses, it is impossible to erase all traces of a crime in this fashion.

There is no doubt that flesh can be decomposed with acid, but this is actually not the best way to go about the grisly process. Using concentrated base instead of acid is more effective at breaking down proteins and fats. This is “alkaline hydrolysis,” and is the principle of resomation.

A resomator is a sophisticated piece of equipment that converts a human body into an oily liquid and a white powder. It looks like an elongated washing machine but instead of clothes and detergent, is loaded with a concentrated solution of potassium hydroxide and a body wrapped in silk and. Pressurizing the chamber makes it possible to heat the contents well above the boiling point of water. Essentially what we have here is a pressure cooker that basically does the same job as the common kitchen appliance. In cooking, the point is to break down complex molecules to simpler compounds. That’s just what the resomator does.

“Alkaline hydrolysis” decomposes the body to a brownish liquid of amino acids, peptides, fatty acids, sugars and salts. Suspended in the oily liquid are the remains of the skeleton which can be separated and easily crushed into a white dust consisting mostly of calcium phosphate. Both the liquid and the bone remains can be used as fertilizer, or if desired, the dust can be placed in an urn and returned to the family. Cost, though, is an issue with a resomator going for nearly half a million dollars. So far this technology is mainly used for medical school cadavers and animals, but if it gets approval as an alternative to burials or cremation, environmentally conscious consumers may be willing to spend a little extra to reduce their posthumous footprint. In the future it may be the way to go.

Comments

  1. #1 chezjake
    October 8, 2011

    Perhaps better than burial, but please consider first an anatomical gift (and/or organ donation) to your friendly local med school. If you don’t do something to promote the education of the next generation, you might as well have never lived.

  2. #2 Russell
    October 8, 2011

    Why bother with technology and chemicals? If you’re buried at sea, the crabs and other beasties will handle the recycling of your organic remains in the old fashioned way.

  3. #3 Kandy Collins
    October 8, 2011

    Thanks for your comment.

  4. #4 Kandy Collins
    October 8, 2011

    Thanks for following our blog and for writing in.

  5. #5 Paul
    October 12, 2011

    One advantage of this approach is that it ensures the destruction of prions, which even incineration may not do. I believe a version was used for the destruction of cattle infected with the BSE prion.

  6. #6 Kandy Collins
    October 12, 2011

    Thanks for following our blog and for writing in!