By Charles Wilson
October 10th 2010
South Africa is leading the world in developing innovative techniques for solving their critical shortage of burial space. The innovative technique is freeze-drying corpses, and recycling the product.
A new ecologically-friendly technique, known as “ecological burial” is being considered by a number of cities in South Africa, where the influx of people from the countryside into towns is causing a crisis where the living are cramped for space, and there is now less space available for the dead.
In the eco-friendly recycling burial technology, the corpse is placed in a bath of liquid nitrogen, which is at a temperature below -321 °F (-196 °C). The corpse at this temperature becomes brittle and is then shaken until there is a pile of small particles. This is freeze-dried to remove the water content, with the final product (if one can call it that) being a smaller pile of a white powder. Calling this “frozen ash” makes it sound more like a conventional cremation.
This ash can then be put in the ground in the garden and with a tree planted on top instead of a headstone, as a living memorial. The “ash” from the corpse is then recycled into a tree. Very ecologically friendly, sustainable and a space saver.
An alternative space saving method has met with some opposition. This method is called “recycling graves”. Here remains older than 10 years are reburied deeper, with new corpses placed above. This might seem practical to some atheist bureaucrats, but the problem is that the local culture is spiritual.
Ancestor worship is a reality within the Zulu culture. The Zulu do not only go to the grave to place flowers and have a moment of remembrance. They also communicate with the spirits of the ancestors. If funeral rites are not followed correctly, trouble can strike the family of the departed.
What if two or more spirits sharing the same grave do not get along? Or the spirit does not take kindly to sharing its space? The relatives still living will bear the brunt of the spirit’s anger.
Zulu culture shows respect for their ancestors and the dead. The body of the deceased must be respected and cremating the body will bring on a curse. So turning the corpse into a brittle chunk of frozen matter, shaking until the brittle pieces are a pile of small particles, then freeze drying to a small pile of white powder, is not the Zulu idea of venerating the departed relative.
While this debate continues, the black-market in graves is still lucrative. Some cemetery guards are reselling abandoned graves. Others without those connections are digging and selling illegal graves outside approved burial grounds. Tombstone theft is another problem forcing the Durban authorities to erect barbed wired electric fences around Durban’s cemeteries.
In Johannesburg this new eco-friendly freeze-dried corpse technology has been rejected as not being time efficient. The cremation process is too time consuming for hyperactive Johannesburgers, as the average cremation takes an hour and a half, compared to the four and a half hours for the freeze-drying process. They have a backlog for cremations as it is.
The solution might be to take the body back to where the deceased came from originally. Then the spirit can feel more at peace and have more space.