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Alkaline Hydrolysis: A Green Alternative to Burial

Alkaline hydrolysis has environmental advantages over both burial and cremation


Betwys-Y-Coed 14th century, St Michael's Church
Ron Evans/Photodisc/Getty Images

Question: Why is there a fence around the cemetery?

Answer: Because people are dying to get in.

That's an old joke, but it points to a serious and growing problem. As the world population continues to expand at a dizzying rate—up to more than 9 billion people by 2050 from about 2.5 billion in 1950 and 1.2 billion in 1850—how can we dispose of an increasing number of dead bodies in an ecologically sustainable way? Both burial and cremation have environmental drawbacks, from contributing to climate change to monopolizing countless acres of increasingly precious land, but what's the alternative?

How about reducing your loved ones to chemical soup and flushing them into the sewer?

Alkaline Hydrolysis: An Alternative to Burial and Cremation
A Scottish company called Resomation, Ltd. is promoting the idea of using a process called alkaline hydrolysis in place of burial or cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis is the same process used in the UK to destroy the carcasses of cattle with mad cow disease. Some European and U.S. communities are now studying the idea of using alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of human remains.

How Alkaline Hydrolysis Works
In alkaline hydrolysis, the body is enclosed in a silk bag, which in most cases also serves as the casket liner at the funeral service for the deceased's friends and family. The silk-shrouded body is placed inside a metal cage and loaded into a machine called a Resomator, which is then filled with a mixture of water and potassium hydroxide and set to 180 degrees Celsius (356 degrees Fahrenheit).

What comes out at the end of the alkaline hydrolysis process is a relatively small pool of greenish-brown broth made up of amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts, plus some bone remains that are turned soft and porous by the chemical bath. The bones are crushed into a fine white ash, placed in an urn, and returned to the next of kin. The liquid can be recycled back to nature as fertilizer for a memorial garden or forest, or simply flushed into the sewer system.

Objections to Alkaline Hydrolysis for Disposal of Human Remains
Critics—from elected officials to members of the clergy—have labeled the idea of using alkaline hydrolysis on human remains "disturbing" and disrespectful to the dead, but Resomation claims the funeral experience (what mourners actually see) is the same as for cremation. The company says the deceased is shown the utmost respect and consideration at every stage.

According to Resomation, alkaline hydrolysis is identical to natural decomposition. It's just much faster, and better for the environment than either burial or cremation.

Resomation also claims that alkaline hydrolysis uses less energy than cremation, emits far fewer greenhouse gases, releases no harmful mercury into the atmosphere, and protects trees and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by eliminating the need to burn or bury wooden caskets.

Why Burial and Cremation Aren’t Sustainable
There is good reason to seek alternatives to traditional burial and cremation.

Cemeteries monopolize millions of acres worldwide that could be put to better use for the living. Cremation doesn't require as much land as burial, but it uses a lot of energy and creates a lot of pollution.

And despite the poetic image of scattering your loved one's ashes on a beautiful beach or mountaintop, that sort of thing is discouraged (and often illegal) in many communities, so there are a lot of ash-filled urns resting in mausoleums and sitting on mantels. Even green burial, a more natural method of interment that uses no embalming fluid or other harmful chemicals, still requires vast, dedicated tracts of land.

So the biggest potential obstacle to widespread adoption of alkaline hydrolysis—a new and eco-friendly way to dispose of human remains—may be our collective queasiness at the idea of saying our final farewells to grandma at the funeral and then, essentially, flushing her liquefied body down the drain.

According to Resomation Founder and Managing Director Sandy Sullivan, alkaline hydrolysis is the logical next step in disposing of human cadavers—and the only one that offers such significant environmental benefits.

“Over 130 years ago cremation offered fundamental change in the way we approach human disposition, and some serious convincing was required before it was fully accepted," Sullivan says on the company website. "[With alkaline hydrolysis], Resomation now offers a new, innovative approach which uses less energy and emits significantly less greenhouse gasses than cremation.”

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