Promession: the Swedish utopia for green burials

Green burials are a trend that is spreading around the world as the only viable alternative to reduce the environmental impact of cremation and burial. Promession could be a solution to reduce emissions from the more than 155,000 burials and cremations that take place every day around the world, but it is a process that still generates many doubts.

Promession, a technique full of uncertainties

Promession is an alternative to cremation which, like resomation, requires little energy and allows for an environmentally friendly burial with a treatment of the corpse that generates hardly any ecological footprint. The concept of promession, which is not without controversy, was developed in Sweden by the marine biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak.

The promession process step by step

The procedure begins by immersing a body in liquid nitrogen at -196°C. The low temperature makes the organic matter extremely fragile due to its high-water content. It is then subjected to mechanical or ultrasound vibration capable of pulverising the body.

As Wiigh-Mäsak herself explained to the BBC, “the coffin is transformed into firewood, and the body is exposed to liquid nitrogen. This makes the body brittle, and with the combination of a very special short vibration, the body disintegrates into pieces in a minute.

The resulting organic powder is only about 30% of the original body mass. It is put into a vacuum chamber to evaporate the water and finally passed through a metal separator to remove surgical debris, prostheses and mercury. The remains can be buried at a depth of half a metre; unlike normal burials which are more than 2 metres deep, which prevents aerobic degradation.

Lower energy expenditure

In the case of promession, the energy expenditure is also much lower than that required for cremation. As its inventor explained, between six and twelve months after the process, the coffin and its contents are converted into organic soil. In addition, “it leaves no residue in the air, no pollution in the groundwater, no dangerous emissions in the atmosphere”.

According to its inventor, six to twelve months after the pledging process, the coffin and its contents turn into organic soil.

However, many experts have questioned whether promession is a functional alternative burial method. Anatomy professor Bengt Johansson of the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg has stated on numerous occasions that “a body is extremely resilient and hard after freezing. It could not decompose with a slight jolt even after being immersed in liquid nitrogen”.

Promessa: story of an ideal

After developing the concept of promesion, Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak founded Promessa Organic in 1997 to pursue her idea commercially. The name stems from the term promesion and the Italian word for “promise” (promessa). However, the company ended up being dissolved in 2015 without ever once having carried out the promessa process.

According to the Swedish newspaper Bohusläningen, putting the alternative ecological burial theory into practice was much more complicated than the founders thought. “The company’s problem has mainly been that it has not succeeded in developing the plant that will freeze the bodies before turning them into dust,” says Bohusläningen.

The failure of Wiigh-Mäsak and her husband, co-founder of Promessa Organic, was an inevitable consequence after the media reported that there were a multitude of frozen corpses in various warehouses waiting to receive their eco-friendly funeral. This scandal of major proportions eventually bankrupted the company, which was more than 158,000 euros in debt (1.6 million Swedish kronor) and had multiple defaults on payments to other companies, including a Spanish manufacturer of biodegradable coffins.

Its founder passed away on 1 September 2020 in her native country due to cancer. Despite this, the undeniable interest in finding an alternative and ecological method to cremation has meant that the project is still active and ambassadors are even being recruited to relaunch Promessa.

Is Promession legal in the USA?

Promession is not yet legal in many countries precisely because it is a process that is not yet well developed beyond animal testing. However, the possibility of putting Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak’s theories into practice has raised the interest of governments concerned about the ecological impact of cremations and the lack of space in cemeteries. For this reason, Promessa has partnered with more than 100 countries and the company continues to send representatives all over the world to demonstrate its method, inform and gain support.

At the moment, Promession is legal in Sweden, the UK and South Korea. The organisation itself insists that legal changes regarding the adoption of new burial methods are always slow and assures that they remain committed to Wiigh-Mäsak’s legacy of making promession a sustainable alternative.

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