Samantha Sieber’s grandfather had a standard American burial. His physique was embalmed, put in a steel casket, and laid to relaxation at a cemetery, the place the grounds could be perpetually cared for. “It felt good to give him what he wanted,” mentioned Sieber, who herself works within the funeral trade. However, she added, “I think my grandfather’s funeral is going to become extinct.”
In 2016, cremation turned the commonest methodology of physique disposal within the US, overtaking entombment for the primary time. This shift is commonly attributed to the excessive value of conventional burial and the waning significance of faith. However specialists additionally level to society’s altering views about how lifeless our bodies must be disposed of. The spectrum of what’s morally acceptable is broadening, on the similar time that the commonest disposal strategies are coming underneath scrutiny for his or her environmental impression. Greater than 4 million gallons of poisonous embalming fluids and 20 million toes of wooden are put within the floor within the US yearly, whereas a single cremation emits as a lot carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile automobile journey. Thus, the rise in America of “green burials,” the place our bodies are wrapped in biodegradable materials and never embalmed.
Sieber is part of this pattern, however she doesn’t desire a inexperienced burial. When she dies, she advised me, she needs her physique to be dunked in a high-pressure chamber stuffed with water and lye. That water will likely be heated to wherever from 200 to 300 levels, and in six to 12 hours her flesh, blood, and muscle will dissolve. When the water is drained, all that may stay within the tank are her bones and dental fillings. If her household needs, they will have her stays crushed into ash, to be displayed or buried or scattered.
This course of is understood colloquially as water cremation and scientifically as alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation. It’s essentially the most environmentally pleasant methodology of loss of life care, says Sieber, the vp of analysis at Bio-Response Options. Based by her father in 2006, the corporate manufactures aquamation tools for funeral houses and crematories all through North America. “This has no emissions, it’s greener, it’s a clean technology to work with,” Sieber mentioned.
However Sieber could not get her want of being aquamated when she dies. Solely 15 states permit alkaline hydrolysis for human stays, and Indiana, the place Sieber lives and the place Bio-Response relies, shouldn’t be one in all them. Casket-makers and the Catholic Church are working to verify it stays that means.
Alkaline hydrolysis was patented within the US in 1888, and the method hasn’t modified a lot since then. The physique is submerged in an answer of about 95 p.c water and 5 p.c alkali—often sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The liquid is heated and set at a excessive strain to keep away from boiling, inflicting the physique to shed its proteins and fat. The decomposition creates a coffee-colored liquid, which comprises amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts. That liquid will get flushed down the drain, and handled like some other sort of wastewater. Solely bones and steel stay.
Alkaline hydrolysis was initially marketed as a strategy to quickly decompose animal our bodies and use their vitamins for fertilizer. It was later adopted by scientific labs to get rid of disease-contaminated our bodies, like cow carcasses contaminated by mad cow illness within the 1990s. Its industrial use for animals started within the early 2000s, Seiber mentioned, as grieving pet house owners sought a sentimental disposal possibility that didn’t require an costly burial or contain burning Fido to ashes.
Along with its gentleness and price (aquamation for canine runs wherever from $150 to $400, whereas cremation is round $100), veterinarians and pet funeral houses started to market aquamation’s environmental advantages. “Unlike cremation, there are no toxic emissions and no contribution to greenhouse gases,” wrote Jerry Shevik, proprietor of Peaceable Pets Aquamation in California. “It has a carbon footprint that is only one-tenth of what fire-based cremation produces.” Roughly the identical is true for human aquamation, which, in keeping with Staudt’s e-book, “requires about 90 kwh of electricity, resulting in one quarter the carbon emissions of cremation, consuming one-eighth the energy, while costing the consumer roughly the same amount as cremation.” Environmental points can come up if the water poured down the drain after a liquid cremation has a pH stage above native laws. If that occurs, nonetheless, funeral houses can simply deal with the water with carbon dioxide earlier than releasing it.
The rising use of aquamation for pets created extra demand for human use. Minnesota was the primary state to legalize alkaline hydrolysis for people in 2003, and different states ultimately adopted. Oregon and Maine handed payments in 2009; Florida and Kansas in 2010. Ten extra states adopted, the newest being California, which handed a invoice final 12 months formally deeming aquamation a sort of cremation. Funeral houses will likely be allowed to supply it starting in 2020.
Sieber’s enterprise isn’t affected by the truth that the method isn’t authorized in each US state. “We’re selling at the pace we can grow right now,” she mentioned. “It wouldn’t help us if every state was approved.”
However her household did undergo personally. In March of 2013, two of her grandparents died simply in the future aside from one another. Every had needed to be aquamated. Sieber’s household had deliberate to make use of the closest funeral house that offered the service—a couple of hundred miles away, throughout the state border in Illinois. However the shock of shedding two grandparents without delay was an excessive amount of to deal with the logistics. “There was so much grief,” Sieber mentioned. “We couldn’t get it done.”
Angered by their incapacity to meet their family members’ needs, Sieber’s household launched a lobbying effort to get aquamation legalized in Indiana. And after greater than a 12 months and $40,000 spent, Sieber mentioned that they had gathered sufficient votes for a invoice to go. When their aquamation legalization invoice got here to the ground of the state Home of Representatives, nonetheless, it was derailed by a grotesque speech by a lawmaker who additionally occurred to be a casket-maker.
Consultant Dick Hamm’s speech made nationwide information that day, and never solely due to his enterprise curiosity in preserving human aquamation unlawful in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm mentioned, evaluating the method to “flushing” a beloved one. This wasn’t correct. Aquamation makes use of lye, not acid, and related fluids are flushed down the drain through the embalming course of. However Hamm’s hyperbole was efficient. Although he was the one lawmaker to talk towards the invoice, it failed in a 34-59 vote.
The concept that aquamation is unnatural or gross and even immoral has impeded its adoption in different states. A invoice to re-legalize it in New Hampshire, the place it had been authorized for 2 years earlier than being repealed, was rejected in 2009 after lawmakers gave speeches much like Hamm’s. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski mentioned. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”
The Catholic Church of New Hampshire got here out towards that invoice as effectively, and testified towards later efforts to re-legalize aquamation within the state in 2013 and 2014. Every testimony mentioned alkaline hydrolysis “fails to provide New Hampshire Citizens with the reverence and respect they should receive at the end of their lives.”
However those that select aquamation for his or her family members overwhelmingly accomplish that as a result of they imagine it’s a kinder strategy to deal with a physique, mentioned Philip Olson, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a loss of life research professional. “Embalming is invasive and violent, and so is fire,” he mentioned. However alkaline hydrolysis, he mentioned, is extra like a heat tub. “That’s becoming a more prominent value in American death care, the idea of gentleness,” he mentioned. “That’s why we’ve seen such growth in the home funeral movement—the idea of using your hands is more intimate, of having contact with the body, not mediating your contact through instruments which are hard and cold.”
The environmental advantages of aquamation are much less of a motivating issue. “We thought families would want this because it’s more eco-friendly,” Sieber mentioned. “They like that, but it’s not why they’re choosing it.” Which may be an excellent factor, as a result of alkaline hydrolysis shouldn’t be an environmental panacea. Its widespread adoption may improve manufacturing at industrial chlor-alkali vegetation, that are identified to emit mercury and different pollution. The method additionally makes use of about 300 gallons of water per physique, or 3 times as a lot as the typical particular person makes use of in a day. And whereas changing cremation with aquamation would have some local weather advantages, they wouldn’t be as big as, say, eliminating coal-fired energy vegetation—which is probably why there aren’t any giant environmental advocacy campaigns to alter the loss of life care trade.
Olson sees a extra existential worth in greening up loss of life care. “The funeral industry has always been about making your body immune to nature, preserving yourself in spite of it,” he mentioned. Processes like aquamation require an acceptance of turning into a part of it. “It’s new to think about bodies that way, as a kind of eco-product,” he mentioned. “It demonstrates a shift in how people are thinking about our relationship to the natural world.” If extra individuals respect the planet in loss of life, it bodes effectively for the way they’ll deal with it whereas they’re nonetheless alive.