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Ashes to Ashes, Dust to... Freeze-Dried Particles

18 January 2019
So ashes to ashes or dust to dust… or even freeze-dried particles. Death has joined the steep parabola of scientific and hi-tech change around the globe.

They say there are only three certainties in South Africa; death, taxes and the return of Bheki Cele. 

The first was never discussed in the Watts household growing up in Bulawayo (ironically called "The Place of Slaughter"). And being a laat lammetjie the funeral and burial arrangements for my late parents, Basil and Edna, we're made by my older brother and sister.

So the story on Death Matters got me thinking on a number of levels, sadly most of them underground.

My reflections on the topic are a little complicated by the fact that, without trying to be religiously correct, the branches of our family tree extend to the Jewish, Christian, Messianic Jewish, Mormon and Islamic faiths. And naturally, one would like to accept, and certainly not offend, the religious beliefs and customs or cultural traditions of any of our viewers.

As we said in the programme - through the ages humans have adopted various practices to memorialise loved ones after death. From the cremations on the banks of the Ganges to the sky burials in Tibet where bodies are simply left for scavenging vultures.

And while a conventional burial in a cemetery or cremation are still the primary options in South Africa, I was astonished by some of the alternatives on offer locally and overseas.

Like promession which was developed in Sweden. In this new-age process, the body is frozen in liquid nitrogen, then vibrated and disintegrated into fine particles which can be buried or scattered. The end result is not unlike cremation but doesn't pollute the heavens and doesn't have any connotations with the fires of hell.

Another green technique of body disposal called resomation was developed by a Scottish scientist, Sandy Sullivan, more than 10 years ago. Also called aquamation, it involves literally melting the corpse in a strong alkaline solution. The end result is a green-brown tinted liquid which is disposed of while the remaining bones are crushed to a white dust which is returned to the loved ones.

It may sound rather macabre and grisly, but aquamation is already in use in 16 States in America, along with Canada and the UK, and is being considered by the private sector in South Africa.

So ashes to ashes or dust to dust… or even freeze-dried particles. Death has joined the steep parabola of scientific and hi-tech change around the globe.

Oscar Wilde may have thought that life is too important to be taken seriously. But death is rarely an event to be taken lightly. As J.B. Priestley wrote: The people who pretend that dying is rather like strolling into the next room always leave me unconvinced.

Death, like birth, must be a tremendous event.

Derek Watts has been a journalist for nearly 30 years, presenting on South African television since 1985 as a sports anchor. Derek has been an anchor and presenter on Carte Blanche since the programme's inception in 1988.