Note: Today’s post is a little graphic in describing how cremation works.
I recently wrote about the history of cremation in America and how it’s becoming more popular every year. However, an alternative form of cremation is gaining attention that’s truly different. Resomation, bio-cremation and flameless cremation are a few of the buzzwords used, but the scientific name for the procedure is alkaline hydrolysis (AH).
So how do you cremate a body without a fire?
Alkaline hydrolysis is a water-based chemical resolving process using strong alkali in water at temperatures of up to 350F (180C), which quickly reduces the body to bone fragments. Experts say it’s basically a very accelerated version of natural decomposition that occurs to the body over many years after it is buried in the soil.
AH was originally developed in Europe in the 1990s as a method of disposing of cows infected with mad cow disease. In England, AH for humans is not fully legalized yet. It’s usually referred to as resomation there because the commercial process was first introduced and trademarked by Resomation, Ltd. They received the Jupiter Big Idea Award (from actor Colin Firth, no less) at the 2010 Observer Ethical Awards.
The University of Florida and the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota already use AH to dispose of cadavers. It’s not surprising that both states were among the first to legalize its use. The other states are Colorado, Oregon, Illinois, Kansas, Maine and Maryland.
But why would someone want to do what amounts to liquifying the body with lye instead of traditional cremation? Some people worry about the carbon footprint left behind by traditional cremation. AH is supposed to remove that problem.
In the traditional process that uses fire, cremating one corpse requires two to three hours and more than 1,800 degrees of heat. That’s enough energy to release 573 lbs. of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to environmental analysts. In many cases, dental compounds such as fillings also go up in smoke, sending mercury vapors into the air unless the crematorium has a chimney filter.
During AH, a body is placed in a steel chamber along with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide. Air pressure inside the vessel is increased to about 145 pounds per square inch, and the temperature is raised to about 355F. After two to three hours, the corpse is reduced to bones that are then crushed into a fine, white powder. That dust can be scattered by families or placed in an urn. Dental fillings are separated out for safe disposal.
AH is purported to use about one-seventh of the energy required for traditional cremation. Some studies indicate that AH could save 30-million board feet of hardwood each year from cremation coffins. That’s very attractive to some people. However, one question remains. What happens to what’s leftover from the process (besides the ashes)?
That’s when the “Ick Factor” comes in.
Leftover liquids – including acids and soaps from body fat – plus the added water and chemicals, are disposed of through a waste water treatment process, according to John Ross, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America.
In other words, it goes down the drain like everything else.
“It’s very similar to the treatment of excess water from any (industrial) facility. In fact, it probably has less of a chemical signature than would you find (in liquids) coming out of most (industrial) plants,” Ross said.
Still, the visual picture that creates is not very attractive. In fact, a 2008 article about AH said the thick coffee-colored liquid left behind resembles motor oil and has a strong ammonia smell. Not exactly something you want to put on a colorful marketing brochure.
AH became legal in Colorado in 2011. Steffani Blackstone, executive director of the Colorado Funeral Directors Association, spoke frankly about the “Ick Factor” when legislation to approve AH was being crafted.
“People seem to have objections when they actually think about that too long. They ask: ‘Well what happens? Does (the body) turn to sludge?’ And the thought of grandma being sludge is kind of disgusting to them.”
While currently legal in only eight states, the movement to make it so in others is real. In New York, the legislation became known as “Hannibal Lechter’s Bill.” New Hampshire legalized AH in 2006 but banned it a year later. In Ohio, the Catholic Church is a vocal opponent to AH and it has yet to be fully approved there.
Jeff Edwards, an Ohio funeral director who performed several AH procedures before being told to stop, filed a lawsuit in March 2011 against the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors after ODH quit issuing permits for AH body disposals. A judge ruled that ODH and the board had the authority to determine what is an acceptable form of disposition of a human body, as set forth in the Ohio Revised Code.
The cost of an AH machine can range from $200,000 to $400,000, depending on its size and capacity. That hefty price tag did not stop Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home in St. Petersburg, Fla., from becoming the first in the state to purchase one to provide AH to their clients. They refer to AH as “flameless cremation”.
Funeral home president and owner John McQueen said in a 2011 article that he planned to charge clients the same prices for AH cremations as the traditional ones, which can cost from $1,000 to $2,000.
So what do I think? In the end, traditional cremation sends its byproducts up into the air. AH sends them into the water for treatment. Which is better for the environment? I don’t know. I’m not fond of the idea of being burned up or liquified, especially the latter. The “Ick Factor” does give me pause.
A pine box in the cemetery still sounds better to me.
Jevon Truesdale said:
What if the “Ick Factor” was no longer even a factor of consideration? This process is able to be completely sustainable meaning that there is no loss at all and certainly nothing going “down the drain.” This is possible with Aquamation.
Jevon Truesdale – http://www.aquamation-na.com
I’d be interested in hearing more about how it’s different.
Jocelyne Monette said:
I’d be interested as well…..nothing going down the drain? Please share….
Jevon Truesdale said:
The “Ick Factor” is avoided by not even utilizing the drain but instead focusing on containment, collection and conversion. What I mean by this is that the liquid hydrolysate can be contained, collected and then transported to an anaerobic (NOT aerobic) treatment facility where it is converted into either a micronutrient product used for land application or into bio-energy.
Not only is the anaerobic process actually facilitated by hydrolysate but it will NEVER result in drinking or even potable water meaning that its only end result is for land application or to co-produce kWh and/or Btu…in other words, light or heat!
Our company, Aquamation Industries of North America, is promoting specifically the Aquamation: From Fire to Water process and only installs systems that result in the containment, collection and conversion of hydrolysate. As a result, we are able to offer previously unavailable scattering options for the ashes of a loved one.
When presented with the options of traditional flame based cremation versus a water based process, 80% of families are choosing water over fire in all five of the ‘Elite Eight’ states where this process is being offered by savvy funeral professionals. The Aquamation: From Fire to Water process results in the same options for families (service, visitation, memorialization, reduction to ashes, an urn, inurnment, scattering, et cetera) but with environmental benefits that flame cremation can not claim such as:
– Removing the dependency on natural gas
– Drastically reducing energy consumption to zero Btus
– Narrowing of the carbon footprint by generating no emissions
– Completely eliminating emissions meaning that no pollution is created
– Creating new, previously unavailable scattering options for families
I hope this helped to provide another layer of clarity and to illustrate the positive direction towards which Aquamation Industries of North America intends to lead this industry, which is From Fire to Water.
Please visit our website, which exists specifically to educate the general public and to generate awareness of the Aquamation: From Fire to Water process or feel free to contact me directly with any further questions, comments or concerns.
Founder & Principal Officer
Aquamation Industries NA, Inc.
Jevon, I appreciate you elaborating on what you meant. I’m not sure I entirely understand everything about the process, but if the end result is keeping the “ick” out of the water, then it’s definitely a good thing.
“Some have described the remaining processed liquid after AH as having the color and consistency of motor oil. That’s not an image most people want to have in their head when remembering a loved one.”
This statement is false. The liquid is more like the consistency of water.
I found more than one source that described it this way (USA Today, ABC News, the Daily Mail and Popular Science to name a few).
Samantha Sieber said:
Hi Traci – I know this post is a year old 🙂 I thought you might appreciate this information.
You are correct that this is how all news outlets seem to describe the resulting process water, but it is only partly accurate. From someone who runs these systems on a daily basis – I can tell you that the final process water from this process for human and pet “cremations” is the consistency of water, and the color of very diluted coffee.
I can tell you where the discrepancy comes from: There are some systems (many quite large – from 4,000 to 10,000 lb capacity) installed at universities and disease diagnostic labs for animal mortalities, and these systems are more concentrated simply because of how the systems are operated. Your alma mater UGA has had one since 2006. For example, a necropsy (animal autopsy) lab may take in numerous livestock mortalities, and after examination to determine cause of death, those animals are all placed communally in the alkaline hydrolysis system for sterilization and reduction to the final bone remains. Depending on the cycle size, the process water from this use of equipment ranges from light colored/consitency of water -to- coffee colored/consitency of a light weight motor oil (typically the latter for large lab AH systems). This is different than a body placed in a single-body machine, or a pet system where each pet is in its own individual compartment.
The process for human “cremation” always yields a final process water that has a water-like consistency and dilute coffee coloration. Hope that clears it up!
Samantha Sieber said:
I don’t typically comment on blogs – but I’m afraid there might be some misinformation here in the comment section. In full disclosure, I am the biologist for a company that manufactures alkaline hydrolysis equipment.
I’m having trouble understanding what point was being made with the “anaerobic (NOT aerobic)” treatment facility comment. Treatment plants have a three tier cleansing process that involves physical, chemical, and biological processes. The anaerobic or aerobic step is the biological process that uses microorganisms in a controlled environment to efficiently consume material/impurities. These are the same microorganisms that would decompose any matter found in our natural world.
All wastewater treatment plants employ one or the other. Energy can be reclaimed from either process, because energy is released from the decomposing matter in both cases. Both processes result in a final material that is safe for release back to the environment – typically land-applied.
The fundamental difference is whether or not the types of microbes require oxygen. For example, an above-ground compost pile that is rotated to promote decomposition is an aerobic compost pile, and those organisms require oxygen to facilitate their consumption process. Alternatively, a compost buried in a pit or trench is an anaerobic process, and a body buried six feet under would undergo anaerobic digestion (without oxygen). If the nutrient water was to be spread directly on a the ground as a fertilizer to trees or plants, the consumption by the environment would be a combination of aerobic and anaerobic.
I guess my point is to say: I can’t see that someone would have a preference of one treatment plant over the other when it comes to this technology.
I do understand the sentiment that ‘down the drain’ is a potential ‘ick’ factor. Any alkaline hydrolysis system can be set up to discharge to a tank and hauled directly to a treatment plant in lieu of the plumbed route. Of course this could be important to someone. It would need to be weighed against the use of additional fossil fuels to perform the transport – at a weight of just over 8.3 pounds per gallon, that is a heavy and energy-consuming haul. There could be a consequence to the affordability of this option for families due to the needed infrastructure, labor, logistics, and fuel to haul the process water to a treatment center. I think we’ll need to learn over time from the individuals and families that have to make the decisions. Perhaps there will be some facilities that offer this as an added option.
In practice, the “ick” factor has not been a barrier for families who prefer this type of disposition for their loved one (or themselves, during per-arrangement). The sterile process water that leaves an alkaline hydrolysis system is composed of the same material that would re-enter the environment through the ground from a body fully decomposed in the soil – “the byproducts of decomposition.” Water, amino acids and small peptides (broken down protein), sugars, salts, and minerals.
I have been challenged before with the question, “How do you tell someone you’re flushing grandma down the drain?” The answer in short is: factually. In fact, if it is not brought up by the family, then the funeral professional needs to bring it up. This is not something to hide. This is a discussion funeral professionals that offer this service need to have with every single individual or family that wishes to consider this option. Then these decision makers have the tools to make a choice they are comfortable with.
Just my thoughts –
Samantha, I want to thank you for your comments today. You did a fantastic job explaining some very complex elements of this process, and it’s a very welcome addition to the conversation. I am clearly not a trained scientist so even when I wrote about this last year, I knew I would not be able to do it justice as someone like you might. I especially appreciated how you explained about the difference between what goes on at the college level with the deceased animals as opposed to human remains. That’s something I wasn’t fully clear on before. And you are right, funeral professionals need to be ready to be able to fully explain what it all means to those families comsidering this option so they can make an informed decision.
Samantha Sieber said:
Traci – you’re welcome, thank you for taking what must have been an hour to read my novel, ha! I spend a lot of time through phone and email answering questions for people who are just curious and I really enjoy it. I used to teach high school biology, so it fills a void for me (sharing information/connecting with people/ and let’s be honest – flapping my jaw). Please let me know if you have any questions. There are hundreds of these systems worldwide, but for pet and human cremation this is an emerging use of the technology. If ever in central Indiana, our doors are always open.
And now I must thank you – I had the great pleasure of getting lost in your blog for about an hour yesterday. Your blog is incredibly unique – you seem to capture everything about cemeteries that I love through words and photos. The nature, peaceful surroundings, the great history, and the artistry – the design of the landscape, stones and monuments, the lettering, and the emotional experience that comes from seeing evidence of lives fully lived and lives too short (and relating to it). The list goes on – I’m a mom and a lover of nature, animals, and history. I’m grateful that you are sharing your adventures with this stranger. Thank you!