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.