Scientists do strange things when they are bored.
Years ago, in the height of the CSI television craze, my lab mate and I would challenge each other between experiments to come up with novel ways to “get rid of a body” without ever being detected by TV super sleuths. Probably the best scenario we came up with was given by my lab mate who said she would “put the body in a lye truck that her brother drives and as the truck bounced its way to Canada the body would dissolve with little left to detect. Not only was this brilliant, from that point on I stopped stealing supplies from her lab bench too!
I had long forgotten our musing antics in this regard until I came across a recent article that mentioned several states have now approved “alkaline hydrolysis” as an alternative to burying or cremating the dead. I doubt she ever applied for a patent for the process, but alkaline hydrolysis is essentially my former lab mate’s technique: the body is placed in a pressurized, heated chamber with a lye (alkaline) solution to digest the remains. After several hours, the process results in a liquid mix of organic salts, sugars and lipids which are then drained to the sewer. The process leaves some bone fragments which are typically discarded as solid waste.
Advocates for this process promote that this process is 90% more energy efficient than cremation and is an “eco-friendly” way to process our departed.
Just when you thought our eco-fundamentalists could not get any crazier… Don’t like the thought of using chemistry, how about biochemistry? In the same vein as alkaline hydrolysis, one can also use the dead to make a greener planet through composting. Here our “loved one” is placed in a heated bin with plant materials that allow microbes and bacteria to break down the bone and tissue. The resulting mixture can then be used for “lawn or garden use.” My guess we could rename the compost from “Scott’s” to simply “Scott”…
They are dead, so who cares, right?
We care. Our faith teaches us that the body is to be respected even in death. While the Church prefers burial, cremation is allowed if the cremains are interred respectfully in a grave or mausoleum. The Church teaches, in Ad resurgendum cum Christo, that burial expresses our hope in the resurrection of the body. So, what is wrong with alkaline hydrolysis or composting? The issue is that the process leaves nothing to be buried respectfully.
Of course, the “ash diamond” process for making jewelry out of dad does technically leave us a form to bury. This process uses a process involving extraction of carbon ash from the cremains and then presses the material under high pressure and heat to change the carbon form to diamond. Colors are added by adding minerals or irradiation. However, making jewelry from a loved one defeats the purpose of expressing our hope in anything more than the desire for more bling.
Like much of our society these days, what once was thought to be outlandish is becoming commonplace. How did we get here?
Perhaps when life become part of our current “throw-away” culture, the body cannot be far behind.
Utilitarianism, a consequentialist philosophy that concerns itself with net utility or “most good,” allows people to be used as a means to bring about better outcomes. We can see it in our society when people focus solely on personal happiness. Accordingly, actions are “ethical” when they promote “my” happiness. John Stuart Mill promoted that general happiness is best served by each person focusing primarily on themselves and those around them. This has led to the ethical aspect of “quality of life.” Marie Hilliard reminds us that in the utilitarian ethic, “state sanctioned killing of those deemed to have ‘lost their dignity’ is hailed as a ‘good.’” (Linacre Q, 2011: 78(1)) In this view, dead bodies no longer experience happiness, why not just mulch them or throw them down the drain?
The Church teaches that our bodies are the physical expression of who we are. Our souls are not trapped in a “flesh” container. (or “bags of water” for Star Trek fans) Our soul and our body are connected. The Catechism (#365) teaches:
“…the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.”
The soul and the body are uniquely bound.
Like all of God’s creation, we are called to be good stewards of our bodies. Pope Francis reminds us that we are to accept our bodies as they were created. He has called our current wars on gender identity “ideological colonization.”
Our bodies are physical manifestations of who we are. They were meant for respect as we envision the Imago Dei in each of us. They are not meant for ornamentation or a “switching of parts” simply as suits our fancy. This is also why the Church has never taught that a body can be simply discarded or thrown away at death. The Church teaches the immortality of the soul. Each Sunday at Mass we are reminded of the “resurrection of the body” as we recite the Nicene or Apostles creed. Our actions at death are to be in line with this belief.
While alkaline hydrolysis is not evil in itself, we must remember that we must approach the final disposition of a human body at death in a reverent way. Our actions must not diminish the sacredness of the body nor promote misunderstandings of our human nature. A human is much more than simply a soul. Our actions are to pay homage to our loved ones as we recall our belief in the resurrection of the body.
And, such homage never involves Wrigley Field.