Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or water cremation may be the next frontier in the death industry. Researchers say it’s one of the most sustainable options for treating human remains.
What is aquamation?
In 2021, aquamation became a subject of interest after the death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who requested that his remains be disposed of in this eco-conscious manner. Now, it’s a popular choice in the “green burial” movement.
The goal of aquamation is to avoid the use of non-biodegradable materials and promote the natural decomposition of the body. During the process, the body is liquified under pressure. Then, the bones are dried and turned to ashes in an oven. It reduces the need for ostentatious caskets and the greenhouse gases produced by traditional cremation by fire. It also cuts energy use.
Smithsonian Magazine (cited below) explains in more detail:
“During alkaline hydrolysis, a human body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber, while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent sodium hydroxide passes over and around it…The process dissolves the bonds in the body’s tissues and eventually yields a sterile, liquid combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars and soaps, which is disposed of down the drain at the alkaline hydrolysis facility. The body’s bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the deceased person’s survivors, just as the bones that remain after flame cremation are returned to families as ash.”
Choosing a “green burial”
While you may not have heard of water cremation, there are dozens of American companies that build machines for it. It’s legal in at least 26 states as well as throughout the world.
The process itself has been around for a long time, but it’s still not mainstream. However, it’s likely you’ll hear more about it as nearly every industry strives to become more sustainable.
There are states that still ban the practice because of concerns over the effects of residue in the water supply. It appears not to have any negative effect on water, but regulating it is still a challenge since aquamation’s use is still relatively rare.
According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, the chemicals and materials buried along with bodies in conventional American burials “include approximately 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.” Fire cremations in America “release an estimated annual 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as toxic materials like mercury.”
Smithsonian notes that “Alkaline hydrolysis consumes approximately 10 percent of the energy required to cremate a body in flame, its equipment runs on electricity rather than fossil fuels, and it emits no greenhouse gases.”
Once people get over the suspicions that come with novel new burial practices, experts believe the industry will grow. — WTF fun facts