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Daring ways to dispose of a dead body

By Isabelle Coetzee

Like a gruesome scene from a popular crime-series, you need to decide how to dispose of a dead body.

Should you dissolve the remains in chemicals, or remove the organs and set the shell alight? What about sinking the corpse to the bottom of the ocean, or leaving it in a shallow grave?

As absurd as it may sound, these are all legal methods people around the world have made use of. South Africans, on the other hand, can only choose between being buried or cremated.

Candice Austin, funeral counsellor at Goodall and Bourne Funeral Undertakers, recalls that a decade ago nearly 50% of their clients opted for cremation. Today, this has increased to 85%.

“Although the costs are similar, people find cremation easier than burials nowadays. It’s simpler and quicker, and it doesn’t require any transport admin,” explains Austin.

Once South Africa introduces new burial options, which also offer similar benefits, a portion of the daily dead may find new resting grounds. In the meantime, bodies can be used to make a difference.

Donate a dead body to science

Are you older than 16 and do you weigh less than 110kg? If you’ve answered yes to both, then you are eligible to donate your body to science – assuming you don’t die of an infectious disease.

The idea of first-year medical students chopping away at your body might be sickening. But the idea of them trial-running their new skills on live human beings is far worse.

South Africans can donate their bodies to science by filling in an application form from one of the many universities. If the death occurs within a certain radius of the campus, the university will arrange and pay for transport costs.

This is the most noble use of mortal remains. However, the following options may soon become available:

1. Liquifying a dead body

Through a process known as alkaline hydrolysis, bodies can be submerged in a solution that encourages decomposition. Within four hours you can send your loved one off into the sea (or flush them down the drain, if you prefer).

Neither the department of health nor the department of environmental affairs are sure who has authority on implementing this locally.

But having been pioneered in America and quickly becoming popular in Australia, liquifying your remains might become an option soon.

2. Submerging a dead body

“My colleague recently dealt with a fisherman who spent his whole life at sea. After he passed away, his family ensured that he went back to the ocean in a special, weighted body bag,” says Austin.

She points out that, although this may sound perfect, it will be time-consuming because of the legal documentation that needs to be processed.

Alternatively, and once it’s imported to South Africa, it may be easier to mix a loved one’s ashes with biodegradable cement and then dropping it to the bottom of the ocean.

Keep in mind that a small “eternal reef” currently costs $3,995 (about R47,503).

3. Planting a dead body

Both burials and cremations have proven to be harmful to the environment. The former requires embalming with toxic chemicals, and the latter discharges pollutants into the air.

Liquification is the most effective way to dispose of a body without harming the environment. But being “planted” may be an alternative to this.

The body is placed in an egg-shaped pod, wrapped in the foetal position with biodegradable materials, and then buried with the person’s chosen seeds. This is still being trial-run and will only become a reality at a later stage.

In the meantime, interested parties can purchase a smaller pod for $510 (about R 6,067) which will be able to hold an urn. This can currently be used by South Africans.

New or old horizons

In Tibet, corpses are left in fields for crows to devour, and every seven years the Malagasy people exhume their relatives and dance with their remains.

Our understanding of a “normal burial”, in which we send our loved ones six-feet-under, may soon develop into something completely different.

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