- Burial or inhumation: Very common method since times immemorial. Chimpanzees and elephants also cover their dead with leaves and branches. Religious traditions dictate how the corpse is buried: facing Mecca for Muslims and aligned East-West for some forms of Christianity.
- Cremation: either in an electric chamber or on a funeral pyre with lots of wood.
- Go out with a Bang! Exploded into the sky with fireworks. Choose your display – a big and noisy display in the night sky or just a lonely rocket carrying your ashes and streaking into the final frontier. For about £2000 in the UK, the company Heavens Above Fireworks shows how to choose.
- Become a diamond – Companies like LifeGem take your carbon remains and crush them under intense pressure into small gemstones for a loved one to wear. A one-carat diamond would be around $ 15,000.
- Dissolution – e.g. in acid or a solution of lye, which is then disposed as liquid. This method is claimed to be more environmentally friendly than cremation or burial. But does indeed have a connotation of being flushed down the drain! No mortuary homes offer this service but it is used to dispose of cadavers by e.g., the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida in Gainesville.
- Disposal by exposure – The ultimate recycling method and act of compassion in feeding the preying birds with one’s dead corpse: e.g. Jhator or Tibetan Sky Burial and in the Dakhma/Dokhma or Cheel Ghar or Parsi Towers of Silence. Remains of such practices can also be found in Göbekli Tepe (14 000 years ago) and Stonehenge (6500 years ago).
- Promession – A special Swedish freeze-drying technique to reduce the body to a powder substance. Within a week of death the body is submerged in liquid nitrogen (ultra cold). This removes all water (70% of body weight). Then vibrations reduce the brittle body to a powder. Illegal in USA.
- Resomation – The body dissolves into its chemical components. The corpse is placed in a silk bag and put into a machine with water and potassium hydroxide and heated with high pressure. The end result is some powder and green-brown liquid.
- Burial at sea e.g. made famous or notorious by the case of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse being buried at sea.
- Space Burial – some notable examples are Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek; Timothy Leary, the “Turn on, tune in, drop out” LSD advocate.
- Moon Burial – Only one person has had that honour. Dr Eugene Shoemaker, astronomer and the co-discoverer of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy was buried (his ashes) on the moon on 31.7.1999. A company called Celestis can do similar things for you, but expect a hefty bill.
Some people and cultures are very keen to preserve the dead corpse, rather than take the ‘out of sight’ approach. Here are some common methods utilised:
- Cryonics – Companies like Alcor Life Extension will vitrify (not freeze) you and keep you ice-free at -124°C until there is a cure for your particular ailment in the distant future. Very expensive.
- Mummification – Very common among Egyptian and Inca royals, but not so common nowadays. A company called Summum in Salt Lake City, Utah still does mummification. The embalmed mummies in e.g., Egypt are not favoured for radiocarbon dating but the natural ones are. The oldest known natural mummy is the 6000 year-old Torres Aparico head from Quebrada, Argentina found in 1936. The oldest known artificial mummy is a child chinchorro mummy from 5050 BC in Camarones Valley, Chile.
- Permanent storage in a mausoleum or tomb. This can be the whole body after embalming or only the ashes e.g. Lenin’s or Mao Ze Dong’s mausoleums or ashes kept in family tombs like that of Eva Peron.
- Stuffing or Taxidermy – more common in literature or films than real life. E.g., Norman Bates’s hobby in Psycho is taxidermy or stuffing the remains of his dead mother. Jeremy Bentham, the English philosopher, one of the most forward thinking people in his generation (advocating individual and economic freedom, the separation of church from the state, equal rights and rights to divorce for women, decriminalising homosexual acts etc.) had his body dissected for a public anatomy lecture and his skeleton and head stuffed wearing his clothes (after he died in 1832, of course!)
- Plastination – is the method of replacing the water and fat in human parts being replaced by plastic. This produces specimens that be touched and they do not smell or decay. In July 2012, more than 13,300 people all over the world have donated their bodies. If you plan to donate your body to plastination here’s how.
- Cleanup crew - Professionals come and take care of everything and no details are necessary. e.g. Mafia or Men in Black.
- Dissolve in Acid - The mafia call it the 'White shotgun' or Lupara Bianca method. These 'acids' dissolve everything, however, often leaving the bare bones. The 'acids' are very strong and even a drop falling on the floor goes through the floor to the next floor and even deeper.
- Viking Funeral - A large pyre of wood burns the body or bodies spectacularly. Used e.g. in The Return of the Jedi.
- Burial at Sea - The body is ceremoniously dumped into the sea, e.g. in The Godfather or The Enemy Below
- Eating the Body - Celebrities like Hannibal Lecter or people in many other movies enjoy eating human bodies and use it as a method of disposal, e.g. in Tooth and Nail (2007), The Road.
- Cement Shoes - The dead bodies are attached to a heavy weight and dropped in the sea or deep waters for the fish to eat. Often used in mafia movies. This method has been used in real life too in the notorious Swedish Ståplats i Nybroviken case (Standing Place at Nybroviken Bay) when a murdered corpse was found in 1966 at Nybroviken Bay, Stockholm in a standing position.
- Chopping the body in pieces - This is the Dexter method, named after the serial. The body is chopped into small pieces, then either ground into mulch to be put into the earth, fed to the chicken or fishes or into dumps.
- Hiding the body in closets - The John Christie method e.g., 10 Rillington PLace (1971) is used by serial killers.
- Dropout rate is very high due to the emotional stress and the risks of infections are very high (Cahill, 1999).
Yes, it’s cremation. Here are some interesting statistics about the cremation method of corpse disposal:
- The country with the highest cremation rate is Japan with 99.94% of all dead corpses in 1545 crematoria in 2010.
- The most number of people cremated is in China 4.5 million out of 9.3 million deaths in 2008 (48.50% cremation rate) cremated in 1724 crematoria. India is probably the second.
- The fastest growth has been in Canada: Cremation rate grew from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009 with 90% in Victoria
- Iceland has 1 crematorium to cremate 20.58% of all corpses compared to the 1 crematorium in Romania, which cremates 0.30% of all corpses there
- Protestant Denmark (32 crematoria) and Sweden (66 crematoria) cremate 77.34% and 76.86% while neighbouring Norway (24 crematoria) cremate 35.33% and Finland (22 crematoria) cremated 41.47% in 2010. A Finnish Lutheran priest explained that bodies being buried in a full size coffin has a traditional significance in Finland and being cremated and the ashes placed in a small urn does not fulfil a similar symbolic role.
- In USA, with 2113 crematoria, the cremation rate grew to 40.62% in 2009. In high Church-attendance states like Mississippi the rate is 13.84% while in low-attendance rate Nevada, it is 73.46%. The Roman Catholic Church lifted its ban on cremations only in 1963 and only in the 1990s allowed cremated remains at Catholic funerals.
Here is a chart with percentage of cremations correlated with population density or people living per square kilometre.
- Silicone breast implants are often removed before cremation otherwise they stick to the cremains (the ashes)
- Pacemakers with lithium batteries are removed because they explode during cremation
- Modern crematories don’t actually expose the corpse to flames, the intense heat reduces the body to ashes in 2 hours at 760- 870 degrees centigrade
- Costs of a cremation have grown. In 1960 it was $708 and in 2009 it was $5, 000 compared to $8,500 for a burial funeral
- It is illegal in USA to scatter cremains or ashes in public parks, national parks or over an inland body of water less than 3 miles off shore.
- Turn your beloved departed into a glass orb or a touchstone for about $315 (if you can’t afford the diamond option).
- Become an hourglass, which people you leave behind can stare at and learn to use their time well. For $400 In The Light Urns can do that to you.
- Remember your departed as his/her hobby, be it a football or a jazz trumpet:
- For disposal of dead bodies in emergencies from the WorldHealth Organization.
- Here’s another unofficial take on the same topic.
P.S. There are enough dead bodies and corpses in the world. Please don't produce any more unnecessarily! Let people live as long as they live!
Cahill, Spencer E. “Emotional Capital and Professional Socialization: The Case of Mortuary Science.” Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2, Special Issue: Qualitative Contributions to Social Psychology. (Jun., 1999), pp. 101–116.