For many unfounded reasons, water cremation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, aquamation and resomation, has a bad reputation ( I don’t give a damn ’bout my bad reputation!! bownownanananan). This is likely due to the sensational (albeit captivating) Hollywood story lines and urban legends spun about how criminals use water and acid to “melt bodies”.
It doesn’t help when the news media and people in positions of power decry alkaline hydrolysis because they think it’s “icky,” and publish headlines such as “Ontario funeral business dissolves the dead, drains liquid into sewer system.” Representative Dick Hamm of Indiana was quoted as saying:
“We’re going to put them in acid [sic] and just let them dissolve away, and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever.”
In reality, water cremation is a safe and eco-friendly wonderful body disposition method. “Aquamation has been in use long enough that we know it well! For both humans and animals,” Cole Imperi, thanatologist and founder of the School of American Thanatology, says about the process. “It’s an option that might be a perfect fit for someone, even if it’s not a perfect fit for you, which is why it’s important to support having as many options available to our communities as possible”.
To help demystify water cremation as a body disposition option and to get you thinking about what *you* want (more on that later), we’ve detailed five facts about alkaline hydrolysis you may not know.
Five Things You Didn’t Know About Water Cremation
1. Alkaline hydrolysis was patented in the U.S. in 1888
Contrary to what some people may think, alkaline hydrolysis is hardly a new way to help bodies decompose.
According to one of the founders of human alkaline hydrolysis, Joseph H. Wilson, Amos Herbert Hobson of Middlesex, England, patented alkaline hydrolysis in 1888. The New Republic adds that the process hasn’t changed much since its origin.
This pressurized process heats the body and eats away blood, skin, muscle, and fat within four hours. After about 3 hours, only bleached white bones remain.
Essentially, alkaline hydrolysis mimics the natural process your body goes through if you’re buried; the machine just speeds it up by adding water, heat, and lye.
The process involves placing the body into a high-pressure tank filled with water and potassium hydroxide. This chamber is heated to 150°C (300°F for you Americans). This pressurized process heats the body and eats away blood, skin, muscle, and fat within four hours. After about 3 hours, only bleached white bones remain.
2. Alkaline hydrolysis was originally created and marketed as a way to decompose animal bodies rapidly
Amos patented what we now know as alkaline hydrolysis to remove “nitrogenous materials” from animal bones to help make “suitable fertilizer and byproducts,” Wilson explains. Amos “saw the benefits of alkaline hydrolysis as a process to treat animal carcass materials.”
Much later, in the 1990s, science labs used alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of animal bodies used in research, as well as disease-contaminated animal bodies, including pigs and cows.
Then, in the early 2000s, alkaline hydrolysis started being used for companion animal body disposition.
According to Bio-Response Solutions (Joe Wilson’s company), pet alkaline hydrolysis is legal in the United States and Canada. Many reputable businesses, such as the wonderful folks over at Resting Waters, specialize in this specific body disposition service for pet owners.
3. The first commercial-use human alkaline hydrolysis unit was manufactured in 2005
Joseph Wilson, founder and CEO of Bio-Response Solutions helped create the first human water cremation unit marked for commercial use with the help of doctors Kaye and Weber.
“Shands Hospital at the University of Florida (Florida State Anatomical Board) purchased the first commercial system for the disposition of human remains donated for medical research,” Wilson writes. “Units were sold to SmithKline Beecham in Rennes, France and Collegeville, Pennsylvania as well as a large unit (3,000 pound capacity) sold to University of Florida Vet Diagnostic Lab. All of the original units are still in use today.”
According to Bio-Response Solutions, human alkaline hydrolysis is currently legal in 21 states and four provinces.
4. Ashes from water cremation look different than flame cremation ashes (and there are more of them!)
Some people worry that water cremation will drain unsafe remnants into sewer systems and create ashes that look strange. Both of these assumptions are false!
Any non-organic material that survives the process, such as a metal hip, is removed, and the bones are processed into ash in a similar way as cremated bones.* The result is a fine white ash that contains 20% more remains than traditional flame cremation. The bone itself is calcium phosphate, so it is not technically even bone, but you can still treat it just like cremated remains.
*”Fun” Fact: the machines used by (water and flame-based) crematories to turn bones into the ashes you bring home is called a cremulator!
But what about the water? After the process is completed, the dissolved solution looks like tea, or a pale beer, and is a sterile mix of 96% water 4% acids, and peptides, with no human DNA. It is perfectly safe. In Oregon, the water is donated to water sod farms.
5. Water cremation is eco-friendly
“Aquamation has 1/10th of the carbon footprint and uses 1/12th of the energy of flame-based cremation.”
Alkaline hydrolysis uses approximately 90 percent less energy when compared to flame-based cremation. This process uses less fossil fuels and causes less emissions than cremation too.
Another environmentally friendly aspect of water cremation is that inorganic materials that create harmful emissions when burned, remain. This includes breast implants and tooth fillings, some of which contain mercury, which is particularly harmful to our planet (and our lungs) when burned.
And according to Resting Waters, “Aquamation has 1/10th of the carbon footprint and uses 1/12th of the energy of flame-based cremation.”
Making body disposition a thoughtful, personal choice
Before we sign off, we want to stress to you the importance of simply thinking about what “eco-friendly” body disposition means to you.
“Body disposition is a choice that results from the intersection of a variety of influences on a person’s life–a person’s ancestry, geography, religion, worldview, community, wealth, recent family tradition, local availability and personal values (like environmental concern) can all significantly affect what disposition method someone chooses,” Cole says.
“For those who prioritize environmental impact as a major aspect of the body disposition decision-making process, aquamation is a viable option. One ‘grey area’ in defining disposition options as more ‘eco-friendly’ than others concerns whether or not someone includes the manufacture of the equipment used as part of the process.”
Cole explains why this type of critical thinking is essential when considering body disposition:
“For example, I’m Jewish and we bury our dead in simple pine boxes. Do we include the lumber milling equipment as part of the overall environmental impact? Or just once the pine is milled into a board? And the transport of those boards across the country,” Cole ponders.
“With aquamation, would you factor in the transportation of the body to and from the facility as part of the environmental impact? What if the nearest provider is quite a ways away? Or what about the impact of manufacturing the equipment used in aquamation? Each of us defines ‘eco-friendly’ in different ways.”
(Considering other types of lower-impact body disposition options? Check out our recent piece about how to make a conventional burial greener and this infographic on The Environmental Impacts of Funerals)
So, even if you ultimately decide that water cremation isn’t for you, we hope this piece demystified the alkaline hydrolysis process and got you thinking about your body disposition options.
“Once body disposition choice becomes an individual choice (versus a general discussion), how that person individually defines something as eco-friendly personally can have a huge impact. One disposition method can be more eco-friendly in one part of the world, than in another,” Cole adds.
“For me, I prefer that people have options available to them, as many as possible. Body disposition can be a very simple choice depending on factors affecting you or it can be incredibly complex.”