A Shanghai funeral home has started using 3D printers to reconstruct the body parts of disfigured corpses prior to their funeral ceremony, a Chinese public broadcaster reports.
Called the Longhua Funeral Parlor, it has reportedly the first establishment to use the technology in such a capacity.
But what makes this a unique use of 3D-printing so interesting is how it caters to traditional Chinese beliefs surrounding the afterlife.
"The Chinese treat death as the starting point for a new life in another world," Dr Xiaohuan Zhao, Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney, told SBS Science.
"So, it doesn't surprise me [Chinese funeral homes] would do something like that," he says.
Dr Zhao explains this view of the afterlife is similar to how the Ancient Egyptians viewed the afterlife. Hence equipping the dead with a well-maintained body as well as a series of essentials from this world to take to the next, are common considerations in these sorts of funerals.
"People bury their dead in tombs, along with utensils and daily necessities they will continue to use in the afterlife," he says.
To reconstruct damaged corpses, the Longhua Funeral Parlor's uses a combination of layered 3D printing, hair implants, and make up to achieve a look most similar to the deceased's original features.
Before using this technology, the funeral home, like many others still do, used materials like wax to shape missing features such as ears or noses. However Longhua and their clients find that 3D printing technology can create more lifelike replicas of body parts.
Tradition meets tech
Dr Zhao emphasises that these Chinese beliefs surrounding the afterlife are non-religious, originating from the remote antiquity as evidenced by oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th BCE) and tomb stone carvings of the Han Dynasty (3rd century BCE to 3rd Century CE), and continuing well into the 20th century until 1949 when communism came to power in China. However these rituals have become increasingly popular in recent years, as people grow disillusioned by communist propaganda, he says.
"It's a traditional Chinese belief. But now there is a revival of traditional culture, so more and more people are turning to tradition for these kind of funeral services," he says.
Though China does have a large religious population of Buddhist, Daoist, Christian, and Muslim worshippers, their general idea of religion is rather broad and focuses on the spiritual.
"Many Chinese people, do not distinguish this from that, Buddhism from Daoism from Confucianism. People just go to temple to get blessing from deities and make offerings," says Dr Zhao.
But even for those who are religious, such as Christians who have open casket wakes, the printing technology provides comfort for family and friends in attendance.
“It is difficult for relatives to see incomplete faces or bodies of their loved ones when they attend memorial services, and make up cannot always sufficiently repair them,” Liu Fengming, director of Shanghai’s funeral services centre, told Shanghai Daily.
Longhua's unique use of 3D printers opens the doors to more innovative ways to take advantage of the technology beyond our attempts at medical applications for printing body parts - a branch of research known as biofabrication.
For example, a group of scientists at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the US recently managed to create 3D bone structures that could potentially be used in humans in lieu of organ donation.
At present, Longhua Funeral Parlour charges clients 10,000 to 17,900 yuan ($2,000 AUD to $3,600 AUD) for 3D printing reconstruction.