Human Liquid

Human Liquid

Human Liquid

Science, technology, and life.
May 12 2008 10:59 AM

Human Liquid

If you've been thinking lately about how to dispose of your corpse—and I know I have—there's good news. You may soon have a new option: being dissolved in lye . Well, let's not call it that. Let's call it " alkaline hydrolysis ." According to AP reporter Norma Love (what a byline!), the process leaves a "brownish, syrupy residue":

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


It uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that are similar to pressure cookers. ... In addition to the liquid, the process leaves a dry bone residue similar in appearance and volume to cremated remains. It could be returned to the family in an urn or buried in a cemetery. The coffee-colored liquid has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell. But proponents say it is sterile and can, in most cases, be safely poured down the drain, provided the operation has the necessary permits.

I know it sounds bad. Lye is what we use to dissolve dead animals, and. over the years, mass-murdering dictators have given it a bad name, using it to torture people and get rid of bodies. But think of the benefits: "Alkaline hydrolysis doesn't take up as much space in cemeteries as burial. And the process could ease concerns about crematorium emissions, including carbon dioxide as well as mercury from silver dental fillings."

Oh, and in case you're worried about ending up in your grandkids' water supply:

George Carlson, an industrial-waste manager for the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said things the public might find more troubling routinely flow into sewage treatment plants in the U.S. all the time. That includes blood and spillover embalming fluid from funeral homes.


Given the alternatives -- incineration, rotting, being eaten by worms—is it really so bad?

No wonder the life-exit industry is so excited. Funeral Service Insider (yes, that's a real publication ) calls it a "game-changing technology." Those funeral directors -- what a riot.

But, wait, there's a problem. Opponents in New Hampshire are trying to ban the practice before a local funeral home starts using it. A spokesman for the local Catholic diocese tells Love: "We believe this process, which enables a portion of human remains to be flushed down a drain, to be undignified."


Hey, I'm all for human dignity. When it comes to hand-wringing about messing with the human body, me and Leon Kass are like this (holds two fingers together). (That's a joke for all you liberals, libertarians, and transhumanists.) But, hey, c'mon. We're not talking about live bodies here. We're talking about dead ones.

Let's be serious. The more we learn and think about biology, sentience, and intelligence, the more we're going to have to rethink the relationship between "human" and "dignity." On the one hand, stem cells and other technologies, such as bio-artificial organs , will force us to ask whether human parts deserve the kind of respect we accord to whole human beings. On the other hand, discoveries about animal intelligence will force us to rethink the sharp line we've drawn between our species and others . Does a dead human deserve more respect than a live pig?

I won't even to try to answer that today. But feel free to go at it yourself .