The Ultimate Symbol of a Productivistic Anthropology? On Bio-cremation

Ellen Van Stichel

Last week a plea for bio-cremation was launched in the Belgian press: this implies that, after death, the human corpse is dissolved in ‘alkaline liquid’ so that the ecological ‘costs’ of dying are reduced to zero. It took a while before the idea sunk in, but now critical voices are being raised on blogs and newspapers. “Do I now also have to die in an ecological manner?”, one journalist poignantly asked. 

I won’t try to dismiss the environmental crisis we face and the ecological challenges it brings. As a ‘conscious consumer’ I buy organic food mostly from the local farmer, stop every now and then at the Oxfam store and look for ways to reconstruct our house in an ecological way. So you won’t hear me saying that nothing is wrong with our environment. But extending that eco-logic to the ultimate act one can do for one’s predecessors intuitively seems problematic.

As a theologian, I believe that the proposal for bio-cremation could be countered by focusing on the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. Whether understood in a rather literal or in a symbolic way, this article of faith points to the importance of the material body in a Christian understanding. However, as an ethicist these systematic theological discussions are not my field of expertise.

Rather I would like to focus on the productivistic anthropology which underlies and gives rise to the proposal for bio-cremation. Bio-cremation would in essence allow us to “recycle” coffins, an efficiency argument which adds to the productivistic rationality of our consumerist, even if consumer conscious culture, as opposed to the ‘wasteful’ symbolic tradition in Belgium of annually decking the graves with flowers on All Saint’s day, in the dark and cold of autumn. Bio-cremation is the ultimate symbol of an anthropology focusing on utility, prolonging the economic paradigm and cultural mentality in which only those are valorized who are productive for society, who contribute to it by working hard and––it seems–– who leave no trace of having lived; It confirms the message we already give to our elderly and ill fellow citizens that they are a burden, an obstacle because of their non-contribution; it seems to portray them as ‘waste’ for society. And reducing the corpses of the dead to nothing by dissolving them in liquid, and thus treating them as ‘waste’ because of the ecological cost – thus weighing costs and benefits – seems to materially extend this symbolic message we already give to them in life. As the cultural historian Nadia Sels puts it: “Is death not the final annulment of the accountancy and balance between costs and benefits which we keep so carefully during our life?” (Flemish News paper De Standaard, 14 October 2014). However ambiguous the words “to dust you will return”, they do at least offer a small ‘consolation’. But, bio-cremation’s message that ‘your dust will pollute even the dust is cruel’, as she rightly points out. Moreover, what happens with the remaining residue is also morally problematic.  When dissolved, only 3 % of the corpse will remain as a white powder, the rest having been dissolved into a water solution. This water solution, which now contains the remains of the body, is treated as ‘waste’ and is sent ‘down the drain’ quite literally.  This is a problem for Christians, who view the body, even when dead, as something to be cherished.

The practice of bio-cremation may also make the practice of mourning more difficult. Though proposed in the Belgian context, but already used in Canada and potentially Florida in the near future,  bio-cremation is likely to become a global phenomenon, especially considering the global scope of the ecological crisis.  But I remain concerned about its vision of the body as disposable waste, and its implicit practice of hiding the body so that those of us who are left are able to adequately mourn.    

On a different but related note, at Fara, a pregnancy counseling centre where I work, we meet women and men who struggle with their longing for legal but especially emotional recognition of their stillborn children.  Is biocremation not in stark contrast with the call for an earlier legal recognition of stillborn fetuses, from 24 to 20 weeks, that would allow parents to give their baby an appropriate name and funeral instead of treating them as ‘medical waste’? This call for a new law so as to allow for the registration of these children was even taken up by the new Belgian government in its state of the union address released earlier this week! Couples whose baby was less than 24 weeks tell us how important it is for them have an opportunity to mourn, to go to a plain field close to the hospital, the so-called ‘star field’ as it is called at the local university hospital, where they can leave a symbol of their loss (a bear, a cross, etc.) - even if they do not have any material remains. Some of them tell us they would prefer to have the remains buried somewhere. There is even a trend of people who make a piece of jewelry out of these remains, if the baby was ‘old’ enough to be legally recognized. Maybe gruesome for some, but nevertheless clearly a sign of the need to mourn, and mourn materially.

Often such parents are left to mourn in solitude, either because no one knows about their loss or minimalize it ‘because they have not yet really seen, felt it, known it alive’? At Fara we hold a desire to abolish this taboo and to give these women and couples the space they need to mourn. Would bio-cremation, when applied as a general practice, not also result in a lot of ‘hidden mourning’?  Does it not confirm the thought that long term mourning is inappropriate, and might even be labeled as a mental disorder (as the discussion continues in the aftermath of the publication of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders… (DSM-5, 2013))? Is it thus not a new step in denying death a place in life, of pushing it to the margins of our life and thoughts, because we don’t know how to handle it? Biocreation – in extremis – might send the message to the dying that the only thing their life leaves us with is ‘waste’.

At stake is the symbolic meaning we give to the physical corpse after death, which is reflected in how we deal with it. And if we just unconsciously accept this practice of bio-cremation, this practice will force a symbolic meaning upon us, one with which we might not condone.