For just $609, you can bottle the smell of the recently departed.
Last month, the French biotech company Kalain began sales of what it's calling “olfactory links” to the dead—a perfume intended to invoke the scent of a loved one, be it a parent, a spouse, a child, or a dog. Kalain claims to have discovered a way to perfectly recreate a dead person’s scent using just a piece of their clothing.
Humans have come up with a lot of pretty weird ways of holding onto our dead. The Victorians used locks of hair to turn the deceased into jewelry. In more modern times, people have transformed their loved ones’ ashes into frisbees and vinyl records and the ashes of their pets into sterling silver pendants.
But Eau de Dead Person isn’t just another morbid keepsake to remember someone by after they’re gone. It's meant to keep a very small part of the dead, alive.
Katia Apalategui came up with the idea for Kalain as her father lay dying eight years ago—all she could think about was how much she would miss the way that he smelled. After he died, her mother held on to a pillowcase steeped in his scent. Apalategui wanted to bottle its essence, to turn her father’s scent into a perfume.
With the help of a government entrepreneurship program, Apalategui, an insurance saleswoman in her 50s, started looking for a partner who could perform the scientific part of this endeavor. She got in touch with the macromolecular organic chemistry department at University of Le Havre, which figured out a way to extract the dozens of different molecules that make up a person’s scent from a piece of fabric and then reconstitute them in an alcohol-based solution. (The company and university are keeping further details a secret.)
Smell is a huge part of how we identify each other as individuals. Studies have shown that both mothers and their newborns communicate and bond based on smell. Scent has been found to play a significant role in human attraction.
There is an intimate relationship between the brain’s olfactory centers and the system of nerves that creates fear, emotion and memory, so the scent of a lost loved one can be a powerful thing. Researchers have demonstrated that smell, more than other sensory experiences, can trigger incredibly vivid memories and emotions. The narrator in Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" dips a madeleine cookie into a cup of tea and is besieged by long-forgotten childhood memories. Proust was likely not just exaggerating for literary effect. Scientists often refer to “odor-evoked autobiographical memory” as "the Proust phenomenon."
“With smell,” said Florian Rabeau, who runs Kalain with his mother, “you can really close your eyes and feel like you are with them.”
Rabeau told me that it was important to Kalain to recreate not just the essence of a person’s scent—the smell of, say, the cookies your grandmother baked or her floral perfume—but their actual, memory-triggering smell. A person’s real scent is made up of everything from the perfume they wear to the detergent they use and even the pollutants in the air. The scent of his grandfather, for instance, he explained, included a distinct odor created by his diabetic condition as well as the smell of his dog. When Rabeau smells those things together, it feels as though a part of his grandfather's essence has somehow transcended death.
“If you give us clothes really soaked with the smell of your father, you will get exactly the same smell in a perfume,” Rabeau told me. “Almost 100 percent sure.”
Mourners receive a box that includes 10 milliliters of perfume and a space for a photograph of the deceased, along with a pocket scent diffuser, space for a photo blotters and a silk scarf printed with the initials of the deceased. It looks a little like a bottle of perfume in a cardboard coffin.
(Recently, the company decided to also offer an option for “temporary absences,” figuring it might also be appealing to people whose loved ones were simply far away, like couples in long distance relationships. That box set is less morbid looking.)
Technology allows us to interact with the dead in ways that we never could before. The sociologist Margaret Gibson has argued that the myriad ways in which we encounter the dead online has made death in the west less taboo, and mourning more public. Death may be less taboo, but it also feels less permanent when you can open up a bottle of perfume and experience, as if she were alive, the scent of your dead grandmother. The ability to preserve little bits of a person's essence after death inherently alters the ways we that we remember and grieve.
But Rabeau told me that the point of “olfactory links” isn't actually to escape the realities of dying.
“It’s not about keeping people alive when they die,” he told me. “It’s about helping them through the mourning period.”
Even the best perfume, he explained, won't keep its scent forever.
This is part of our week-long series on the future of death.