Online survey results Autumn 2016

The Corpse Project online survey November 2016.

Autumn woodland

Autumn woodland

We did a simple publicly-accessible online survey to gather interesting perspectives on future work in particular, without any attempt to achieve a representative sample or a statistically significant number of responses. There were 27 respondees, including individuals with an interest, universities, writers and artists and people working in a range of fields within the death industry.

In terms of relative levels of interest in The Corpse Project’s various pieces of work to date, burial and returning the body to the natural cycle came top, but this was followed closely by everything else we have done. Specific projects with teenagers and the trans community scored lowest (but have attracted strong interest in the media).

In terms of priorities for future work, largescale education and engagement with the general public and special interest groups came top, although there was also strong support for training of professionals and research into the best future techniques.

Respondees were interested in the process of social and cultural evolution and putting the work in the wider historical context, for example: ‘Understanding the social context and how change happens strikes me as particularly important if we’re going to try to engineer a change or present more acceptable options’.

One person said that on we were focusing too much on the environment: ‘The material on social history is really interesting and useful, but for me there is too much focus within the project on the impact of the corpse on the environment. If the average human eats thousands of animals in their lifetime, then the disposal of the remains of this one animal is an irrelevance in environmental terms except perhaps as a symbol of how we relate to our environment’.

But the concept of sustainability was seen to be central to the work by one participant: ‘I think it is important to emphasise the commitment to sustainability, which has become a bit of a meaningless marketing buzzword – but the project really does address it, both in terms of environmental sustainability and also in the sense of finding alternatives to an industry and a cultural mindset (burial in perpetuity etc.) that our country literally can’t sustain’.

Other comments included:

People need to view alternatives to traditional burial or cremation as viable choices rather than quirky eccentricities. There should be more options readily available’.

It seems to me that the public being on side with new technology is quite different to informing them. I was going to place ‘knowledge and research gaps’ in top position, but from what I’ve heard of the Corpse Project so far, lots of possibilities are emerging and the challenge is posing them in a way that sounds broadly acceptable and humdrum rather than bohemian’.

I’d say to engage with the elderly would be a top priority and wonder why this isn’t an option. Also, surely one of the priorities is to change what is considered ‘normal’, but perhaps too early to engage the death industry on a large scale’.

The Corpse Project responses

Both the physical, technical, elements of dealing with the corpse and the processes of social and cultural change are important, and how they relate to each other.  This is important territory for our work.

The environment – or wider sustainability – is one dimension of what our work and needs to be balanced by, and relate to, others.

We will continue to do our best to avoid bohemianism and keep eccentricity in check!

Is that so? How so? Assessing proposed new techniques with the corpse

If anyone accused The Corpse Project of being stuck in the mud we’d be mortified. We respect burial and cremation as ancient traditions, ready to be reinvented, but we also believe society needs the next wave of innovation to meet the demands of the next century.

But how to judge whether a new technique is likely to fulfil the claims made for it? Here are our criteria:

Terms used are in common use and can be understood by the public or by specialists and preferably both.

Big statements about why the technique is needed and how it meets our needs are defended.

Sources of data are given.

The technique has been shown to be tested or is undergoing testing, with transparent and impartial review.

Below, without editing or comment, are our questions to the developer of  ecoLation™ and their answers. We thank them for coming back to us.  From their website:

Instead of destruction by flame, ecoLation™ uses a freezing process coupled with a molecular based method that mimics the earths (sic) natural processes of thousands of years and condenses them into a short period with no pollution side effects. This natural acceleration process, returns the remains in a post-cremation like form, but without the emissions of traditional fire cremation.  

The ecoLation™ process neutralises bacteria, viruses, pathogens, prions and other nasties. As one is ecoLated energy is released from the remains. This energy is used to self-fuel the process making the system even more environmentally friendly and partly self-generating.

We invite you to come to your own conclusions about the  ecoLation™ approach. You might want to compare it with the testing which is going on around urban composting of bodies or progress with dissolving the body in liquid lime, which is already in use in some parts of the world. Comments invited as always!

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Email exchange between Sophie Churchill, The Corpse Project, and  ecoLation™, August 2016, with questions arising from material on the  ecoLation™ website.

Is there evidence that burial undermines all the environmental efforts we’ve made during our lives? 

The TNO report went some way towards listing the evidence but not far enough.  All the body burden (700 to 900 bio-accumulated toxins, pesticides etc), end of life drugs, chemotherapy drugs, embalming fluids, pathogens, diseases, coffin veneers etc are released eventually into the soil and any gases either make their way through the soil to atmosphere or are released when a grave is opened.  Fluids eventually return to the water.

Dead bodies are biohazards and we need to dispose of them.

Currently we either landfall or incinerate.  With 7.4 billion people on earth we can’t really think that burying that many biohazards is a good idea!!

 

What is the source of evidence that burial pollutes the air?  

Less so than cremation – we never stated metrics in relation to the air issues, mostly attributed to the upkeep of the grave over a 25 year period is the CO2 emissions, but see above.  The primary gas is methane a greenhouse gas, which will eventually, given its very small molecular size, find its way to the surface and release.

 

Do you have data about noxious substances entering the watercourse with burial?  

Yes

 

Do you have evidence about the amount of toxins being released into the air from cremation? (In GB these are much reduced).  

Yes –  (after the GB reduction of mercury – of only which 50% are abated). We can measure things much more easily today, there are large volumes of data to show the composition of effluent gases from cremation.  The main issues are the green house gases carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide; 

Then volatile acids such as hydrogen chloride (HCl) and hydrogen fluoride (HF), mercury obviously.  Particulate matter.  Most of what you get back is coffin and bones, the soft matter being vaporised and expelled through the stack, which is what we call particulates.

Organic compounds such as benzenes, furans and acetone and polychlorinated dibenzodioxins and polychlorinated dibenzofurans, all of which are carcinogens.

 

How does the body, after it has been frozen, break up? (This was found to be the issue with a proposed freezing process a few years ago).  

We didn’t want anything touching the remains, or chemicals being added or any manual intervention, so the embrittled remains are fragile and therefore we can use the natural properties of a small amount of swift moving water to reduce the remains very easily.  All water is filtered, treated and recycled, the remains are never submerged.

 

What is the process that usually takes thousands of years, which you refer to in the video?  

We call it internally A.N.D. Accelerated Natural Disposition.  Using varying heats, and pressures and movement in an oxygen starved environment we can create conditions in which the long chains of complex carbon start to break into smaller chains of carbon and eventually into the elements on the periodic table.  Therefore you are getting the actual person back and not just ground up bones and coffin ash. In cremation the soft matter is vaporised and ejected through the stack.  We don’t have a stack.  We are electrical and contained – all this happens in a closed chamber.  This is the same process (only obviously synthesised and accelerated) that has produced, for example natural gas and oil.

 

How is electricity generated in this process?  

As the carbon chains are reduced, they release energy in for the form of a gas and this is used to create energy that is then reused for heat that is returned to the process – the more the unit is run the more efficient it becomes.

 

How are the toxins removed and what happens to them?  

Instead of allowing toxins or biologically active remains to putrefy or incinerating them, we are molecularly shredding them to base elements. However, some elements, such as mercury are dangerous.  These elements are subjected to further cleaning. Only traces of these elements will be present, but at levels well below the lowest acceptable tolerances of these in naturally occurring conditions.

End of email exchange.

 

 

 

 

Crematoria: from evasion to confidence?

This blog is a brief review of Hilary J Grainger’s 2005 book ‘Death Redesigned, British Crematoria: History, Architecture and Landscape‘, Spire Books, 2005.

‘Decent, well-mannered, but not always to the public eye humane’  says Grainger  of British crematoria of the 1950s and 1960s. But it isn’t just at the door of architects. She also mentions the lack of prestige of the crematorium: no high powered civic events take place there and public money has tended to go elsewhere (and possibly some of the most exciting architects?) Designers often poorly understand the mourners’ journey, physical and psychological, as they accompany the dead to the fire which ends their time on earth. There is, in Britain, something incoherent about it all.

Grainger talks of the ambiguity and evasion of the architecture of many crematoria. Tony Walters, latterly of the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath, is quoted on the British reluctance to trust abstract modern art: councils don’t commission a phoenix rising out of the ashes, for fear of media ridicule (like going on any trip abroad), so we end up with possibly interestingly textured walls, but oh so careful symbolism and decoration: religious furniture is now mostly removable, but what if you want something other than a gap? One rural crematorium has gone for foliage and birds, what you might call Gibbons-lite.

But the book is full of the better examples, with an extended section on Golders Green, North London, designed by Ernest George, on whom Grainger is the expert. Very far from cosmopolitan taste and investment are the crematoria at Telford, Shropshire and Llwydcoed, Wales, and they fit their purpose well. But still, compare these with the confidence, harmony and honesty of De Nieuwe Ooster Cemetery, Amsterdam, with the wonderful base for the coffin, with a lift that takes it up a floor, where relatives can watch if they wish.

As at Amsterdam, Grainger is unequivocal that the setting and landscape are crucial to the overall experience, linking it to William Robinson, a leading Victorian gardener and member of the Cremation Society in its formative, Golders Green-commissioning days. But even our best efforts seem not as subtle or as striking of many on the continent.

A decade since this book was published we need more on why European confidence remains elusive here. More private investment is being made in new crematoria, but how to ensure that this startlingly good? How can buildings that never host a cheery corporate event or the best private parties become a prestige – and humane – indicator of design expertise?

Expensive to buy, a good read in a library, this book is worth a peruse. 500,000 people a year die in England and three quarters are cremated. The memories should be good.

Llwydcoed image c Jonathan Billinger

Launching our first findings

Thanks to All who came on 30th June to the launch of our first findings.

We kept it lively and low tec and got a lot of excellent feedback on future options. Although we were all only just getting over our national referendum voting, guests were asked to go through it all again, only 24 hours later –  but everyone was game. Congratulations to Toby Angel of Sacred Stones who won the competition to find a word to replace ‘disposal’ in relation to bodies. ‘Returnment’ was worthy of the prize of a bar of chocolate and black bin liners.

Thanks morgan@morganpotts.com for photos.

Cranfield University colleagues with steering group member Dave Raffaelli

Cranfield University colleagues with steering group member Dave Raffaelli

 

 

Hi tec research using post-its and stickers, led by Sarah Jennings, pro bono research support from Operational Research Society.

Hi tec research using post-its and stickers, led by Sarah Jennings, pro bono research support from Operational Research Society.

Sophie with Megan from Queensbridge School, Birmingham

Sophie with Megan from Queensbridge School, Birmingham

Illustrations by neilemmanuel.com

Illustrations by www.neilemmanuel.com

Volunteer Burcu and illustrator Neil cast / draw their votes

Volunteer Burcu and illustrator Neil cast / draw their votes

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Exploring the environmental impact of death

The Corpse Project is leading a debate about options for our bodies after death and helping inform our choices. We are part of the wider conversation about death and dying which is gaining momentum. Our focus is on the absent guest at the table, the body itself, and we ask how we can lay it to rest in ways that help the living and the earth.

One death does not have a great environmental cost. We are likely to have more carbon impact by taking a minibreak to a European city, and how often do many of us do that? But collectively our deaths do have an environmental impact – about 500,000 people die in England every year – and we should keep working at reducing that impact. Hand in hand, we need good and relevant rituals, as varied as our diverse society needs them to be.

We publish our first findings at the end of this month (join our email list to receive them). Meanwhile here are some things we have been exploring:

  • If we want to return our bodies through burial, to the ‘natural cycle’, is shallow burial better than deep? Intuitively we’d say yes, because that is where the nutrient action takes place. But how shallow, what does the soil need to be like and how long is the benefit?
  • ‘Natural’ decomposition has some greenhouse gas effects, including the highly potent methane. Does this hint that efficient cremation might be better in some respects?
  • Traditional burial and cremation are here to stay. What stops them being as good as possible for people and the planet? What about new technologies, like dissolving?
  • ‘Ashes’ are ground bone and you would expect them to be good for the soil, like ‘blood, fish and bone’ for the garden. But is it as straightforward as this?

There are inspiring people working in the death industry and technology is on our side. In the next generation we may see developments as significant as when cremation was first introduced around 130 years ago.

On World Environment Day, you can’t have a better example than the corpse of the need to capture hearts as well as minds, to change our behaviour. The Corpse Project interrogates the science, but also tries to understand our thoughts and feelings, so that we can change our practice in the one thing which all humanity shares and needs to do well: saying goodbye to our precious physical home, and thanking the planet in the process.

Faith perspectives on the body after death

A century and more ago, bold leaders pushed for a ‘modern’ and ‘hygienic’ way of dealing with bodies after death in the UK. This was cremation and they were of course only re-inventing what is an ancient tradition for Hindus and Sikhs amongst others. Now The Corpse Project is encouraging the next wave of debate and practice. We have no particular religious affiliation but we listen widely, including to people who come from a faith perspective.
The issues now facing us include people feeling dissatisfied with some of the rituals and services available, plots for burial being scarce and expensive, cremation sometimes feeling strange and disconnecting and the wider environmental impact of our practices.  More positively, though, there are some excellent providers of service and new options are emerging. The Corpse Project is here to make these better known.
During Interfaith Week 2015 we had a rich discussion in Leicester, with Christians, a Baha’i, a Hindu and a Muslim.  The striking theme was the willingness to think about the future and not to be locked into one way of doing things, given these drivers of change.

George gave us a practical fact from the Baha’i faith, that people should not be buried more than an hour from where they lived. Here he reflects on how faith communities have had to push to have their own provision, but in the future may have to adapt. He touches on the ‘grisly’ and yet wondrous qualities of decomposition.

Burial site of Baha'i leader, Shoghi Effendi, in North London Cemetery.

Burial site in a north London multifaith cemetery of Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of Baha’i faith in the early 20th century. Courtesy of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the UK. www.bahai.org.uk

Suleman is a Muslim leader in Leicester and nationally. He works to make practices around death and dying fit Islamic principles. Here he speaks about the community aspect of a death and how death is spoken about openly in the community and about how things may have to change with shorter leases on burial sites.

Appeal for support to plant sedums on the graves. Gardens of Peace Muslim cemetery, Hainult, Essex.

Appeal for gifts to plant sedums on the graves, to reduce maintenance and increase environmental value of the site. Gardens of Peace Muslim cemetery, Hainault, Essex. www.gardens-of-peace.org.uk

 And here is Kajal, a young British South Asian woman, predominantly exposed to ‘Hindu’ ritualistic processes as a child, who now demonstrates her faith as a philosophy centred around human values. For her, cremation has been the unquestioned cultural tradition, but she is looking at that tradition in a very open way, embracing both personal and wider environmental and global considerations.
Two things are often said about the death and dying sector: that’s it’s inherently slow to change and that people revert at the moment when they have to choose to what they know. There is truth in both – and of course change is not always for the better. But these snippets of conversation suggest that even those who identify comfortably within a particular tradition are open to its evolution.
Many thanks to our participants, including Christians who held that middle ground and were open to whatever people preferred. Vive la difference!

Graves: quiet re-use in the City of London Cemetery

Re-use of area already used for graves.

An area being re-used, The City of London Cemetery and Crematorium

When I was growing up we had a family discussion about letting out our house to other families when we were away. One of us said that he didn’t like the idea of coming back to sleep in his bed with strangers having been there.  I get that, but I’m an AirBnB host and I figure sociability and pocket money ultimately win out over the horrors of sharing of dead skin particles.

Graves available for re-use marked up with discs.

‘Street view’ with some residences for sale

The re-use of graves is a live topic in the face of land shortage and engenders similar gut reactions. Politicians tend to get nervous around what they call a ‘sensitive’ issue. But at least the original occupant doesn’t have the issue of returning home and seeing what the damage is. In fact, in the City of London Cemetery, on the edges of Essex’s Epping Forest, and a gracious heritage site, she or he doesn’t actually go away: the remains are usually not disturbed. Very accurate written records tell Gary Burks, Superintendent & Registrar, and his colleagues where there is space  above an original grave and within a day the ‘new’ resting place can be prepared. The memorial is turned round with a blank face now available for the next ‘tenant’ (or two, or three).  A disc shows that the grave is available. Whether or not you are interested will depend on your tastes. It’s like buying furniture: do you like the old materials  (for example, a Cornish granite which is no longer mined) and would you pay around the same for this option as a new place on the ‘lawn’?  Or are you more of an Ikea person?

City of London Corporation notice on a grave ready for re-use.

Ready for a new occupant. ‘Contact the office if interested’.

In other parts of the cemetery, without memorials, the records show that land has also been used before. Gary wants the 200 acre site to carry on receiving people in perpetuity: it has buried something around 500,000 people in its time and the re-use of the land is traditional practice. Soil from burials is sometimes re-spread as a new layer. Usually, again, remains are not found.

On the continent, and in many countries with more rocks than soil, exhumation is the norm. We have tried to believe in the UK that burial means we lie undisturbed, but this is a myth, with graveyards historically in constant, smelly turmoil.The Victorian cemeteries were promoted as a tranquil, spacious alternative as Laqueur’s book reviewed here, testifies.  With a dignified pragmatism, the City of London Corporation is facing up to the finite amount of land we can (and probably should) have for burial and dispelling the myth of ‘the sleep of the dead’ for our times.

Gary gets no negative responses from the public and perhaps wider attitudes on this one will quietly shift. The impressive Institute for Cemetery and Crematoria Management happens to have its office at the cemetery’s lodge. There, Tim Morris tells me that in Germany families are actually asking to have just 20 years rather than 30 in which they are responsible for the upkeep of their relatives’ graves, ie they are asking for accelerated exhumation: so much depends on our cultural background and the norms we absorb without realising it.

Change happens in this field, as in others, in fits and starts and around specifics, not in some great sweep. The early crematorium installed in the City of London Cemetery was underused for a decade. But then the option ignited, as it were. Today there is no sign yet of an alkaline hydrolysis installation (dissolving the body): there isn’t the appetite. But the extra heat needed for the mercury removal process has been re-used on site: practical, cost-effective innovation. Someone else will be the first to install hydrolysis in the UK. It will take off slowly but may become part of a more sustainable mix.

All credit to the unshowy and committed Garys and Tims of the cemetery and crematoria world. Let’s hope the public and small voices such as The Corpse Project can nudge forward the next cycles of change.

Sophie Churchill

‘The Work of the Dead’ by Thomas W. Laqueur, 2015.

laqueurThis is a story-rich, exhaustive and rather exhausting ‘cultural history of mortal remains’. Its central  – but in the end questioned –  thesis is that humans need to value and respect the body, that to do so is intrinsic to being human. Bodies, says Laqueur, have cultural importance: they do work for us, as per the title, which is revealed in the attention and taboos we direct towards them. The central question addressed in the book is how much and in what ways it matters to us what we do with the body after death. Laqueur takes on Diogenes, who did all things in public and wanted in death to be cast to the animals. The book is a detailed, authoritative but in the end partial romp through what people have done in their efforts not to emulate him.

Buy the hefty book, read it if you have time, rejoice in all its references. Alternatively, here are some headlines.

  1. Church graveyards were about a community of believers waiting for the resurrection. Therefore, even if today we visit and read individual names resting in tranquility, in the past it was a tumble of one body over another, ‘jostled’ as Pepys said, to fit in more remains. A nice Laqueurian term is ‘necro-sociability’. People didn’t have individual freeholds, which is a useful perspective given the current debate about the re-use of graves.
  2. Cemeteries, later, were by contrast about more personal space, a beautiful setting with much less theological or cultural cohesion. Laqueur says interesting things about their origins in classical landscape aesthetics and how memory often became more important than the body itself.
  3. Cremation (or rather the re-introduction of it to the specific western culture of the book) was over-sold around being modern and hygienic, the body not actually being dangerous except in rare circumstances. (The Milan Cremation Society went on a hunt for women, recognising that it was uber-scientific). Over time, rituals around cremated remains have echoed burial, showing the need, Laqueur claims, for a ‘secular sacred’ approach.

The book has great forays into architecture (crematoria ‘an aesthetic struggle against the chimney’), smells, the perversion of science to further a cause and studies on leadership and social movements. There is certainly much to draw on if one is interested in innovation and social change, as we are at The Corpse Project.

But, in the end this book is not quite magisterial:

  1. It covers c1680 – c1900, in Britain and Western Europe, primarily. It is unacceptable not to make this clear in the title, because so much has happened in the last hundred years and, even more profoundly, so many millions of people, pre-eminently Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs, are on the side of Diogenes and put much less store by remains than Laqueur claims, witnessed by cremation without elaborate memorials.  He discusses, always interestingly, the Jewish experience and cemeteries in the Empire, but his cross-cultural interest is as his fancy and background take him.
  2. Given that this is a cultural history, it lacks rigour, at each critical point in an engrossing story, about the wider social and cultural determinants which, he says, the dead assist. He shows how fashion and science influenced practice with the corpse, but not so convincingly the converse: the wider trends into whose service the dead were, he says, conscripted.  A counter and more individualistic history is in fact suggested by his arresting accounts of the remarkable contributions of many men (women being absent): William Price, the Druid who cremated his son, Henry Thompson, a latter-day renaissance man, and the other alumni of the British Cremation Society.
  3. In his Afterword, Laqueur cannot resist joining the contemporary debate about assisted dying.  For a book about remains, mostly up to 1900, this must be mission creep, the more surprising given an absence of any  mention of 20th century developments in the treatment of the dead body, such as ‘natural burial’, or new technologies such as alkaline hydrolysis.
  4. Laqueur wrote the book over a period of years and it needed a more sinuous edit than it is seems to have had. Sections circle round and return much later to early arguments. There is repetition and some surprising infelicities, such as ‘phenomena’ as singular.

Suddenly, in the Afterword, there is something of a volte face from the central argument of the last 500 pages: ‘Over the years I have been working on this book, I have been told by many people that they are indifferent to what happens to their own bodies, if not to those of others. For them at least, Diogenes seems to have triumphed, and the story I have been telling has come to an end’.

Perhaps Laqueur, like us and his editor, was so weary by the time he got these current perspectives that he could not face softening his earlier anti-Diogenesian claim, that almost universally we revere the corpse. He may have been too tired to edit out the repetitions too. But had he and his editor done so, they could have deployed the space created to tell a more nuanced, culturally diverse and recent story, making sense of the rich variety of contemporary views about whether and how we honour the body. What about those who think doing as little as you can to it, apart from returning it to the natural cycle, is to do well by it, to value it for what it truly is?  What about new, thoughtful, even elaborate rituals and ‘goodbyes’, which precede a very matter of fact disposal of the body? Or perhaps some of us still want a good solid tomb, with statues. The Corpse Project will draw on Laqueur’s work but search more widely for current views and practices and the opportunities to improve them in this century.

Thomas W Laqueur, The Work of the Dead, Princeton University Press, 2015.

 

 

THE CORPSE PROJECT LAUNCHES

We are now  officially underway, with a small team and a sufficient grant, from the Wellcome Trust, to develop our work in 2016. We are ambitious, humbled and excited.  This coming year we will review the science, see what people think about the options and communicate everything we find out. From that, we should have a plan for the future. The About Us tab summarises us and what we are up to. And here is our press release. Contact Sophie on 07973 529603 or team@thecorpseproject.net

The Corpse Project launches to promote better ways with our bodies after death

A new initiative to improve the options for our bodies after death has been awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. The Corpse Project will provide information for the public on traditional and new ways of dealing with the body after death and ask how we can say goodbye to our bodies so that we help our well-being and the earth.

The Corpse Project’s Founder, Sophie Churchill OBE, said ‘There is actually a lot of discussion about death in our society currently, but a big gap is the central player in the drama, the dead body. Most of us don’t know much about the ways that bodies would usually return to the natural cycle through decomposition and whether burial (traditional or ‘natural’) or cremation, comes close to that. We don’t know much about deep versus shallow burial, or what ‘ashes’ are made of and how best to deal with them. Most of us are nervous about new technology which might in fact be right for some people.

‘We find people are more than ready to talk about this – it is not boring and not morbid! We want to bring good evidence into the public domain and promote better options’.

Many things currently make this an urgent topic. Costs of burial and cremation are in the news and the industry has large highly commercial companies and much smaller independent ones, not all of whom are making an easy living. Land for burial is scarce. There is talk of lifting remains, digging deeper and creating space that way. But does that help the sustainability of the earth? Would people accept it? Meanwhile, the health of our soil is a real concern and it would be good to replenish it through our deaths. Traditional cremation uses a lot of fossil fuels and does not help climate change. Then there is our well-being: being more accepting and knowledgeable about the body after death could help our mental health. Finally, new technologies such as dissolving the body in an alkaline solution is becoming legalised in the USA. We need to come to a view on this.

The Corpse Project has been given a year’s support from the Wellcome Trust to develop its work and it will be conducting scientific research, for example about shallow versus deep burial. It will be listening to a wide range of people to take the temperature of public attitudes and sharing what it learns on the way. It will work with the pioneers in the funeral industry and everyone who wants to see progress.

Sophie Churchill emphasised the open-minded approach of The Corpse Project: ‘We are here to explore and advise, not to boss or to judge. There is no one solution for everyone and we certainly don’t want people to obsess about the dead body all the time. But we believe, across ages, faiths, sexuality and socio-economic background, we can and should listen and learn from one another. Our listening so far shows that our attitudes are so dependent on our backgrounds, for example how we feel about wrapping our bodies in a shroud and not in a coffin, or whether we like the idea of handling bones – normal things in many cultures. If we open our minds and experiment, we can find new approaches that work for us and the planet’.

NOTES TO EDITOR

www.thecorpseproject.net

For more information or to arrange interviews please contact Sophie Churchill via team@thecorpseproject.net / 07973 529603.

Comments from participants at Corpse Project events

Here are some of things people say about why they value discussions through The Corpse Project:

‘Openness and talk / discussion of different rituals without feeling insulted’.

‘Expertise combined with people’s real experiences’.

‘Willingness to talk about this once prompted was very refreshing’.

‘Excellent project. I came with an open mind, so I am very satisfied with the event. I learned a lot and feel more knowledgeable about the subject as a result’.

Notes on the Corpse Project Team

Dr Sophie Churchill is the leader of The Corpse Project. Previously Chief Executive of the National Forest Company, creating a forest for England in the Midlands, she is Chair of TREE AID, working in the drylands of Africa to combat poverty through trees and the first female President of the Royal Forestry Society. She has a PhD on the lives of adults with learning disabilities and has been a foster carer. She is currently completing a book based on her experience of being a Chief Executive. She was awarded an OBE for services to the environment in 2011. She lives in East London and, as former Midlander, dreams of having a whippet.

Dr Richard Barnett is a writer, teacher and broadcaster, mostly on the cultural history of science and medicine, and a poet. Richard said: ‘The Corpse Project provides an exciting opportunity to extend contemporary discussions over death to that last taboo, the dead body. We want to remake the good death for our own age, our own time and place, as an act of love and remembrance and creation.’

Rupert Callender is, with his wife Claire, the Green Funeral Company. He edited the latest edition of the Natural Death Handbook. He said: ‘I am honoured to be part of The Corpse Project, because it is once again bringing into relation the doing and the meaning of mortality. Our bodies, our planet and our future have never been more closely linked, but revealing this requires bold questions and even bolder experimentation.’

Dimple Patel is a radio broadcaster, skilled in bringing diverse audiences into projects and capturing thoughts, feelings and opinions, which is key to The Corpse Project. Dimple said: I’ve never had to think about what will happen to my body after death; I’m from a Hindu family and cremation is the cultural/traditional/religious norm for us. No discussion needed. That is until The Copse Project shed a light on the environmental impact of our current ways of dealing with the body in death. As an environmentally conscious person concerned with how my everyday choices in food, fashion, travel and general consumption might affect the earth and everyone on it, why not think about how I can leave the planet with respect too? It’s not an easy conversation to have, but an important one while we have the choice to influence our future

Paul Greenwood is Commercial Finance Director at Temple Group. Temple is one of the UK’s leading environmental consultancies specialising in all aspects of environmental and ecological advice with particular focus on rail infrastructure, regeneration and development. Paul leads the financial, legal, HR, IT and facilities functions across all companies in the group.

About the Wellcome Trust

The Wellcome Trust provides more than £700 million a year to support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.

 

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Comfortable, less comfortable… When people discuss the dead body

The Corpse Project takes its place within the wider chat going on about death: including celebrity deaths, assisted dying and how we are going to deal with the larger numbers of people suffering slow demises, including dementia. The surprising absentee in this media-driven treatment of humanity’s main shared experience is often the dead body itself: what happens to it, what we then do with it, what the options are.

The Corpse Project has listened to a small number of people not too scared to turn up for the quality exchanges you can have in small events. What has struck us is how brave and honest people are about the dead body, equally willing to be informed and to speak out. But whilst pastoral scenes such as the photo above make many mainstream Brits feel peaceful and at ease, images which test their boundaries are very easy to recognise too, defined by the traditions which seep into us. Here are a couple of examples.

c Brocklands Woodland Burial

An image of a body wrapped in tastefully done shroud made some (non Muslim) participants uncomfortable. Above is another image of a shroud, from a company carefully communicating its respectful approach. People used to the enclosure of a coffin can worry about smell and instability. We need to share more about how decomposition can be dealt with and how well bodies can be kept without using embalming (which is a rare example of something The Corpse Project is clearly against – in general!) A shroud rather than a coffin is the norm in many cultures. It has an honest quality and of course speeds decomposition once the body is buried.

Bones are another one. Most people in the UK are only used to seeing skulls in the context of genocide. Mostly people didn’t like images of orthodox nuns chanting prayers in an ossuary with many skulls laid out and associated it with violence, (when in fact the skulls are mostly of their sister nuns and it is a loving and accepting act to be close to them at Easter). Taking bones up, and having further, final or repeated, rituals, in the process releasing land for another burial, seems to have a lot going for it, and has been the norm where land is scarce(from rural Greece to Germany), but does it feel a step too far here?

c AP

So, in our attempts to stimulate change, subconscious norms and associations are big players, as is political timidity, a strong and largely traditional industry and our nervousness about death in general. This makes The Corpse Project such a rich and complex initiative. We walk in the steps of many pioneers, including the first advocates of cremation just over a century ago, who arguably faced greater taboos and yet saw change over a few decades. In our turn, we’ll see what we can come up with in a century short of land, fossil fuels and shared cultures.