Thanks to modern chemistry, new alternatives for the final disposition of the formerly living are emerging. If you haven't thought about having your body dissolved in a mixture of water and alkali, you soon might. But Brenda Pogge would rather you didn't. On Jan.10, Pogge, a Republican delegate representing the 96thDistrict in Virginia, introduced House Bill379 to the commonwealth's Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee. The bill would have made it a class one misdemeanor for anyone to dispose of human remains using a relatively new disposition technique called alkaline hydrolysis. The bill did not make it out of committee, but you can rest assured that Virginia's lawmakers soon will resurrect discussions about alkaline hydrolysis.
Sometimes referred to as tissue digestion, liquification, water cremation or by the private labels Aquamation, Resomation or Bio-Cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that breaks down the body in roughly the same way that a living body digests food. The decedent's body is placed in a sealed, stainless steel vessel, where it is immersed in a heated (and sometimes pressurized) solution of water and alkali (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide). After spending several hours in this circulated chemical bath, the body is reduced to an inert, sterile fluid (consisting of amino acids, peptides, salts and sugars) and soft bone matter (calcium phosphate). Any metals from implants or tooth fillings are separated from the bone matter and may be recycled. The fluid can be sent to a wastewater treatment plant by way of the municipal sewer system, and the bone matter may be ground into ash and returned to the decedent's family in an urn.
Alkaline hydrolysis has been in use since the mid-1990s to dispose of animals used in medical research, as well as to dispose of human bodies donated to medical research institutions such as the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida's Health Science Center. Some medical researchers note that a benefit of this new disposition technology is that, unlike cremation or decomposition in the earth, it completely destroys all of the body's DNA and RNA, as well as all infectious prions and micro-organisms that the body may be carrying.
It took nearly two decades for alkaline hydrolysis to find a commercial application in the funeral industry. In September 2010, Jeff Edwards, a funeral director in Columbus, Ohio, purchased an alkaline hydrolysis machine made by Bio-Response Solutions, a privately owned company located in Pittsboro, Ind. On the day the unit was installed (Jan.27, 2011), Edwards performed the first commercial alkaline hydrolysis disposition in the United States. Edwards completed 18 more "aquamations" before the Ohio Department of Health ordered him to stop offering this form of disposition to the families he serves, on the grounds that alkaline hydrolysis is not a legal method of disposition in Ohio.
Several states have already legalized alkaline hydrolysis (Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Oregon, Kansas, Maryland and Colorado), and lawmakers in many more states (Ohio, New Hampshire, Washington and California) are now discussing it or drafting legislation that would make alkaline hydrolysis a legal method of disposition. Most states that have legalized alkaline hydrolysis have done so by loosening their definitions of cremation to include processes other than incineration by direct flame. This legislative strategy is simple and inexpensive because it allows alkaline hydrolysis to piggyback on the regulatory infrastructure that already governs cremation.
But not all states view alkaline hydrolysis as a form of cremation. In fact, the first state to legalize alkaline hydrolysis for the disposition of human remains, Minnesota (2003), classifies the process as a form of disposition distinct from cremation - though Minnesota also declares that alkaline hydrolysis "shall be subject to the same licensing requirements and regulations that apply to cremation."
It is not just state legislatures that cannot agree about whether alkaline hydrolysis should be classified as a form of cremation: The funeral and cremation industries are divided, too. While the National Funeral Directors Association states that alkaline hydrolysis is not a form of cremation, the Cremation Association of North America maintains that it is. Disagreement about how to classify alkaline hydrolysis is not surprising; the technology is very new, and funeral professionals do not yet know how the public will respond to it.
But as death-care attorney Poul Lemasters states in a recent trade publication, the funeral industry would be wise to "decide on how best to define and regulate alkaline hydrolysis before we are told how to do it."
The issue of classification is not just semantic; it is practical. There is some concern among funeral professionals that referring to alkaline hydrolysis as a kind of cremation could potentially confuse or mislead clients, which could elicit litigation against funeral homes or crematories. Also, some states require that crematories be located on cemetery property. If alkaline hydrolysis is not classified as cremation, then the equipment could be located in funeral homes or other facilities apart from cemetery property, which could in turn occasion new zoning codes regarding alkaline hydrolysis equipment.
Setting legal and classification matters aside, proponents of alkaline hydrolysis claim that this process is more eco-friendly than either cremation or earth burial. We humans consume a lot of resources in life, but we consume a lot in death, too. Cemeteries are perhaps the most conspicuous signs of our post-mortem consumption. Beneath the untold acres of land that we Virginians reserve for our dead are buried thousands of tons of hardwood, steel, copper and reinforced concrete, as well as thousands of gallons of embalming fluid. Cremated remains occupy much less land than embalmed bodies, and cremated remains do not leech formaldehyde into the ground.
According to advocates, alkaline hydrolysis is far more eco-friendly than cremation because it uses 1/20 the energy of cremation, yields no greenhouse gas and particle emissions, and eliminates airborne mercury emissions that result from the incineration of dental fillings. Take note, however, that alkaline hydrolysis equipment is powered by electricity that is often generated by coal-burning plants, which are themselves a leading source of eco-unfriendly emissions, including mercury emissions. Solar- or wind-powered sources of electricity would make alkaline hydrolysis greener still.
Critics view alkaline hydrolysis as an "icky" and undignified way to dispose of human remains. Would you want your loved one liquefied and then flushed down the drain? Some oppose alkaline hydrolysis for religious reasons. For example, the New York Catholic Conference has opposed a bill that would legalize alkaline hydrolysis in New York, urging that the process does not show respect or reverence for the sacredness of the human body. The Catholic Church forbade cremation until 1963, when the Second Vatican Council approved it as an acceptable form of disposition, provided that the motives for choosing cremation do not conflict with Catholic doctrine. But Catholics are not of one mind regarding the morality of alkaline hydrolysis. In a 2008 article published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Sister Renee Mirkes concludes that "alkaline hydrolysis is, in and of itself, a morally neutral action," and that it is on par with cremation from the point of view of Catholic teachings.
There are others who feel that the recent fuss about new disposition technologies distracts funeral professionals (and their clients) from the more important service aspects of death care, such as memorialization, life celebration and grief-support. According to Dean Lambert, a funeral home marketer, many funeral directors worry that increased attention to disposition could "reduce the funeral director to a technician/body handler."
It is too soon to say whether alkaline hydrolysis will achieve the level of acceptance that earth burial and cremation presently enjoy. But it is striking that 20 of Jeff Edwards' customers chose alkaline hydrolysis in the mere two months that he offered it. And in St. Petersburg, Fla. (where alkaline hydrolysis is legal), Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home expects to complete more than 200 flameless cremations by the end of this year.
If alkaline hydrolysis does in fact offer environmental advantages over earth burial and cremation, and if informed death care customers would freely choose this form of disposition, then there is a strong case to be made for its legalization.
Given the momentum of recent legislation concerning alkaline hydrolysis, it is certain that lawmakers in Virginia will soon face the question of whether to legalize it for the disposition of human remains. Our representatives in Richmond ought to seek accurate information about this new disposition process; they ought to investigate its environmental impacts, seek input from funeral and cremation professionals and consider the input of well-informed citizens.
If our lawmakers decide to legalize alkaline hydrolysis, they must do so in a way that protects Virginia families who would like to have more options for final disposition, particularly by ensuring that funeral homes provide accurate information about what alkaline hydrolysis is, and what it is not. Any legislation pertaining to alkaline hydrolysis should also provide clear, unambiguous rules and regulations to protect funeral and crematory operators from possible litigation in an environment where there is still a lot of uncertainty about the present status and future prospects of this new technology.