Aquamation: A Greener Alternative to Cremation?

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Richard Glover / Corbis

In Western societies, disposing of a dead body has come down to two choices: there's burial, and there's cremation. Occasionally, a corpse is donated to science, but even those remains usually make their way to the crematorium in the end.

But since climate change has piqued the world's environmental awareness, it has become clear that death, despite being the most natural of processes, is bad for the environment. Coffins, most of which are made from nonbiodegradable chipboard, take up valuable land space. Even when coffins are biodegradable, embalming liquid, which often contains carcinogenic formaldehyde, can leak into the soil. Cremation, during which remains are burned at 1,562°F (850°C), comes with its own problems. According to the research of University of Melbourne professor Roger Short, the process can create up to 350 lb. (160 kg) of greenhouse gases per corpse, including the remains of the coffin.

In Australia, one company recently started selling a greener alternative. Aquamation Industries claims to offer a unique, cheaper, more carbon-neutral method of body disposal. Aquamation employs a process called alkaline hydrolysis, in which a body is placed in a stainless-steel vat containing a 200°F (93°C) potassium-hydroxide-and-water solution for four hours until all that remains is the skeleton. The bones, which are soft at that point, are then crushed and presented to the deceased's family. The residual liquid contains no DNA, and the procedure uses only 5% to 10% of the energy that cremation uses, says John Humphries, a former funeral-home director who is now the chief executive of Aquamation Industries, which launched its services in August. According to Humphries, Aquamation accelerates the processes that occur in nature. Even the residual liquid can be recycled: Humphries measures the pH after the procedure is completed, and if it's deemed too high in alkalinity, he adds vinegar or citric acid to it afterward. By that time, he says, it's safe enough to pour on the rose bushes.

David Brynn Hibbert, a professor of analytical chemistry at the University of New South Wales, has a different interpretation of the process. "Potassium hydroxide is similar to the stuff you use to clean the oven. It has that soapy feel that strips your fingerprints if you accidentally get it on your hands. If you can imagine the way that it dissolves leftover cooking fats, well, the solution does the same thing with a human body." Hibbert adds that the remaining liquid would have to be neutralized to be poured over living plants. "It might be too high in alkalinity initially, but the right amount of vinegar or citric acid would correct that."

At present, the only functioning aquamation unit is at Eco Memorial Park on Australia's Gold Coast, a tourist hot spot that seems an unusual destination for an innovative death industry. Humphries says 15 more Aquamation units have been sold to funeral homes around Australia and will be operational within the next nine months. He says more than 60 people have already paid to be aquamated, and he has been flooded with phone calls since an article about the procedure appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. In a poll appearing alongside the article, 68% of the 2,065 surveyed said they would consider being aquamated.

In truth, aquamation isn't completely new. Alkaline hydrolysis has been used to destroy cattle infected with mad cow disease after it was found to be the only method effective in eradicating the deadly prions, or misshapen proteins, that cause the illness. It has also been used in the U.S. for the disposal of bodies donated to science, a process often referred to as resomation. Resomation has been approved in six U.S. states as a body-disposal option and is expected to be approved in the U.K. by the end of 2010. (In 2009, TIME listed resomation as one of the year's top 10 environmental ideas.)

Still, the appeal of the practice has been limited. In 2006, New Hampshire legalized resomation, but the state banned it in 2008. It was never used in there, and senators reportedly found the prospect of flushing loved ones down the drain somewhat ghoulish. Resomation is a variation of aquamation, but unlike aquamation, resomation places the corpse into a temperature of 170°F (77°C) for approximately three hours. Humphries argues that the temperature, rather than the "yuck factor," is the real reason this method of body disposal hasn't taken off. "Can you imagine if something goes wrong in a piece of machinery that contains 170° temperatures and 45,000 kg of pressure per every square meter?" says Humphries. "Our equipment is much safer."

In Australia, aquamation has had a mixed response from scientists. Barry Brook, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide, says any step taken toward saving the environment is a positive one. However, Short, who spoke out against cremation in 2008, is more ambivalent: "I just don't see why it would be better than a natural ["i.e., free of embalming, with a biodegradable coffin or a cloth shroud with biodegradable lining"] burial. You can be buried in a forest for the cost of almost nothing, and the trees would sequester carbon dioxide from the environment for years and years."

Kevin Hartley, spokesman for the Natural Earth Burial Society in South Australia, advocates more-natural burials but acknowledges that land availability is problematic. "Because it has to be done within the constraints of the existing funeral industry, it doesn't work out to be that cheap," he says. Yet he asserts that if he could acquire a plot of land and manage it his way, he could theoretically bury 10,000 people per hectare. "We could keep burying Australians this way for the next 500 years."

Hartley discounts the safety concerns over resomation. "There are a million industrial processes which use high-pressure equipment," he says. "Resomation isn't popular because no matter how you gloss it up, the process involves boiling someone's loved one away."

Humphries, for his part, intends to be aquamated when the time comes. "Now, since being involved in the industry, I think it's a really nice way to go," he says. "But before I started this business, I never really gave it much thought. I didn't care what anyone did with me — I would be dead."