The Future of Death-Tech Has No Rules—Yet

By Michael Waters

When a company asks permission to pulverize a corpse—to freeze a body solid, then shake it till it shatters—how, exactly, should the government respond? Last September, Derek Schmidt, the attorney general for Kansas, sat down to ponder the specifics. Interest in a new process for disposing of the dead had trickled across the state; it was up to Schmidt to say whether the technology was even legal.

Schmidt’s analysis began on YouTube, where he landed on an animated demonstration that broke down the new mortuary method, known as promession, into steps: First, cadavers are cryogenically frozen; then they’re vibrated into bits, freeze-dried to get the moisture out, and filtered into an urn. In theory, promession would release significantly fewer emissions than fire cremation, which is responsible for 270,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. If true, that would make promession a big draw for the environmentally conscious. Schmidt cross-referenced each step in the promession process against Kansas law in the hopes of answering what turns out to be a highly consequential question: Is vibration-into-bits a type of cremation—and therefore, a legal form of disposition?

Two months later, Schmidt issued his decision. Promession, he announced, “would not meet the requirements of a cremation process as set forth” in state law. His reasoning reads a bit like science fiction and a bit like a rabbi’s parsing of biblical law. Schmidt argued, for instance, that cremation requires “the separation of flesh from bone by the destruction of the flesh.” Promession certainly could be said to destroy the flesh, but the crystallization process doesn’t really separate it from the bone. In that sense, Schmidt concluded that Kansas could not treat it as cremation.

Schimdt’s predicament is not unique. In the last few years, state officials across the country have been forced to map a range of futuristic death technologies onto the creaky regulations of a prior age. Most state disposition laws are antiquated, premised on narrow definitions of “cremation” and “burial” that leave new technologies like promession without the legal grounds to establish themselves. But a few states—Kansas among them—have seized the opportunity. In a bid to attract death-tech companies, and perhaps a piece of the $2 billion fire cremation industry, they’ve been revamping regulations.

The American death industry hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of innovation. For two centuries, the vast majority of Americans dealt with their dead in the same way: a traditional casket burial. The next most popular alternative—fire cremation—did not capture more than 5 percent of the market until 1973. But since the turn of the century, Americans have flocked to fire cremation in droves, with the method now comprising 55 percent of all body dispositions. That industry-wide upheaval has created an opening for a slate of new technologies. In the last two decades, death-tech startups have begun peddling alkaline hydrolysis, a flameless cremation process in which a body is submerged in a mix of water and alkali until flesh separates from bone; human composting, for those who want their bodies to turn into several wheelbarrows full of usable soil; and, of course, promession. All of these technologies are sold on environmental terms: alkaline hydrolysis, for one, releases as little as a tenth of the carbon dioxide of fire cremation.

Although the practice of fire cremation in the U.S. dates back to 1876, most states did not bother to regulate it for another century, according to the Cremation Association of North America. When they did, lawmakers tended to define cremation in narrow ways: many disposition statutes noted, for instance, that cremation is a “thermal process.” These states also took a narrow view of death care, crafting laws that permitted only two types of disposition: cremation and burial. Until the 2010s, all other methods were generally considered illegal by default.