Rosetta Disk

To simultaneously save burial space and nod to posterity, we should cremate our bodies and leave a permanent artifact bearing our genome.

In thinking through all of the various human misgivings about our own death, I struck upon an idea that, at first, may sound sort of crazy. Naturally, I am doing what everyone with crazy ideas does these days: I’m writing about it online. This particular idea has to do with how we approach death and burial from both forward and backward looking perspectives, as well as the emerging field of personal genomics. Additionally, it touches on the subject of really long term preservation (which, for humans, is anything over 1,000 years, really).

I am not going to spend a lot of time discussing the pros and cons of cremation, and in fact I don’t much care about what happens to the body. That’s sort of the point here. Find the method that is most environmentally sound and do that.

On Burial

Many ideas have been advanced to explain the various funerary customs humans practice. We have tended to bury our dead rather than leave them in the open, but the particular methods and ritual accompaniments varied across societies. Burials that do not completely destroy the bodies are fundamentally preservative, in that they protect the remains from scavengers. One effect of this is that we can dig up our ancestors and study their remains. It is sometimes possible to engage in DNA sequencing to establish relatedness in broad terms, as well as to detect the history of diseases and such. To the extent that we can learn useful things from our ancestors, we ought to be thankful for their superstitions.

Today, however, traditional burials in many countries take up growing amounts of space. While we may not all be in danger of being overwhelmed by our dead, it is clear that greater populations will place a strain on cemetery capacities, and there are environmental costs to consider. We could do worse than finding better ways of dealing with the bodies. Cremation is one such alternative, in that it reduces the volume taken up by a human body to a mere fraction of the original. We are mostly water and soft tissues; what’s left after cremation is bone fragment, and that’s usually ground into a fine powder that fits in urns.

But with cremation, especially if it is universally practiced, I think we lose some ability to inform our own posterity about who and what we were. Ground up bone fragments in an urn may not be as scientifically interesting or useful 2500 years from now. I doubt there is enough DNA remaining to sequence later, and so techniques we’ve developed and refined for looking backward may be of less use to our descendants.

Unless we preserve our genomes, that is.

Funerary Genomics

What if, instead of leaving potentially useful DNA lying around in our mouldering bones (or worse, destroying it), we left an artifact containing our individual genome instead? We would want something that can last indefinitely, I would think, which rules out these campy digital memorials. There aren’t many choices, but anyway we can look to work already done in the arena of long term thinking for some ideas. That means we have to turn to the folks at the Long Now Foundation. Go and read about what they are doing when you get a chance.

Of particular interest to the concept of Funerary Genomics (as I am choosing to call this), is the Rosetta Project. Specifically, I am interested in the Rosetta Disk, which is an extreme-longevity micro-etched disc. The completed prototype is a disc 3 inches across, made of nickel alloy, and micro-etched with some 13,000 pages of information that can be read with a microscope. It is surrounded by glass that serves to magnify some of the text and to protect the disc itself.

Now, while 13,000 pages sounds like a lot of information, it’s actually not. Assume for a moment that one such page represents about 400 words. That’s about 5 million words total. We don’t know exactly how many characters, but even if there were 10 characters per word (accounting for spaces and everything, this is still overshooting it), we are talking about maybe 50 million characters. As a comparison, the human genome is 3 billion characters. Transcribing a genome on paper at a readable font size takes maybe 50,000 pages or so. The bad news is that this is a considerable amount of information to transcribe. The good news is that it’s not really that much more. The even better news is that we can already do it, and in fact the human genome will be etched onto the diamond included in the KEO time capsule.

The Cost

Upshot: who knows?

Longer version: it depends on what happens to the price of personal genomics, the availability of mass-scale micro-etching, and how much the supplies for all of this cost.

The cost of personal genomics is set to fall below $1000 by 2014. Don’t balk now. If you bought a coffin, you’d pay far more than that for a bunch of silk and fancy trim that’s just going to rot in the ground.

I’ll freely admit I have absolutely no idea what it costs to do micro-etching. I can tell from a quick search that the most robust techniques were developed in Los Alamos to document nuclear waste storage. The process used in this application resulted in over 100,000 pages of documentation per 2.8” disc, so it appears to be the process we would want to use.

I can imagine charging something like $5,000 for something like this. Maybe more, especially if I were to store the artifacts in vaults or something. Remember, it is a personalized object, perhaps the most personal of personalized objects. Even if such an enterprise were not attractive to most people, there is certainly a percentage of the population that would pay for this.

(Note: This is an article recovered from my old blog, now defunct. It was originally published on 23 May, 2012. The text has been cleaned up slightly to reformat headings and footnotes, and it has been spellchecked, but no other formatting has been done.)