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July 24, 2019 Beyond The Dash

What is Water Cremation?

Alkaline hydrolysis: A greener way to cremate

What is Water Cremation?
Alkaline hydrolysis is the process of chemically dissolving remains. As in a traditional cremation, the family receives the ashes of their loved one when the water cremation is complete. (Getty Images)

The death care industry continues to evolve as new practices and technology are developed. While traditional cremation burial are still the most popular methods of remains handling by far, a new method of cremation has the potential to disrupt the industry: alkaline hydrolysis

The process of alkaline hydrolysis goes by several names: water cremation, biocremation, aquamation, flameless cremation or resomation. These terms can be used interchangeably, but for simplicity, we'll be referring to this process as water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis in this article.

A new take on traditional cremation

The word 'cremation' typically means the incineration of a human body. In this process, the body is placed into a high-powered furnace that reaches temperatures of 1500–1900 °F. When cremation is complete, the result is approximately four to five pounds of ashes (also known as cremains). These ashes are then placed in a container, like an urn or other container, and given to the deceased person's loved ones. 

In the United States, cremation has become the leading method for remains handling. In two recent consumer studies, over 47% of Northeasterners and 52% of Southerners preferred cremation over all other methods. However, cremations pump smoke and chemicals into the air. Though the figure is up for debate, some estimate a single cremation is comparable to a 500-mile car journey. These environmental drawbacks have created a need for greener methods of handling remains. 

How does the process of alkaline hydrolysis work?

Water cremation is done through the process of alkaline hydrolysis. In this process, a pressure vessel is used instead of a furnace. The body is placed in the vessel, along with a mixture of potassium hydroxide and water. The contents of the vessel are then exposed to extreme pressure and heated to temperatures of approximately 350 °F.

Water cremation takes about 2–3 hours—about the same amount of time as incineration. When the alkaline hydrolysis process is complete, the result is a sterile brown green solution, and some bone fragments. The liquid remains can be disposed of through the sewer system. The bone fragments are then crushed into cremains, which the family can take home in an urn. 

Benefits of water cremation

  • Environmentally friendly

Proponents of water cremation say that it is the most environmentally friendly form of human remains handling. Because there are no smoke or chemical emissions from this kind of cremation, it is a greener practice than incinerating remains. The world is quickly running out of burial space, particularly in larger cities. Burial also introduces materials like wood, metal and plastics into the earth's crust, not only disturbing it, but also polluting it. 

If widely accepted, water cremation has the potential to avert the harmful effects of embalming fluid, air pollution and ecosystem disruption. It also uses less energy for a single cremation, as opposed to the power needed to incinerate a body. 

  • Time tested

Although water cremation may seem like a newfangled and untested means of handling remains, this process has been used for animal carcasses for decades. Today, water cremation is often used for the remains of pets

Though it might not be pleasant to think about, sterilizing remains to the point that they can be flushed down a regular city drain is a simple, safe and effective way to handle remains.

Drawbacks of water cremation

  • Accessibility

Water cremation is not yet available in most states for human remains, making it difficult for most families to consider as a viable option. Sixteen states have legalized water cremation as a means of handling human remains, but some have not yet implemented this process for consumers. 

Additionally, the equipment needed for alkaline hydrolysis costs between $150,000 and $400,000—making this form of cremation inaccessible for not only most families, but also most funeral homes. 

  • Cost

In the few states where water cremation is available, it is still more expensive than conventional cremation. Funeral homes offering this service charge for around $2,400. Simple cremation packages can run as little as $500, but generally cost approximately $1,000. Cost is one of the main reasons families choose cremation. For many families, the environmental benefits of water cremation may not outweigh affordability of conventional cremation.

  • Acceptance

The same studies that confirmed cremation as the leading remains handling preference in the USA Northeast and South regions also confirmed that water cremation is still not know or accepted by most people. According to those studies, only 5.2% of Northeasterners and 2.5% of Southerners would consider water cremation as an option for their own funerals. 

The future of death care

There are several obstacles to overcome before water cremation becomes mainstream. In the meantime, the death care industry is evolving. Newer and greener methods may be more viable than water cremation in the future. However, legalizing, regulating and implementing new methods is a lengthy process. 

Currently, water cremation is the leading green option for handling remains. For those who are passionate about reducing the environmental impact of death on the earth, the process of alkaline hydrolysis is a promising start. 

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