Hundreds of articles have emerged in the last few days with headlines reading that funeral homes are dissolving bodies and pouring them into the sewers.
It’s a great way to grab the reader’s attention, no doubt. But the procedure — alkaline hydrolysis — is a process that has been around for nearly 130 years. What’s exciting and new about it now is that it is becoming a “green” cremation option, rather than just a way to dispose of research cadavers or turn animal carcasses into fertilizer.
What is Alkaline Hydrolysis?
Alkaline hydrolysis, also known as liquid cremation, biocremation, aquamation, or resomation, is the process of dissolving the remains of humans and animals in an alkaline solution. One myth is that the process uses acid, but it’s actually just a mixture of water and potash. (Potash is just a fancy way of saying water-soluble potassium salt.)
You read that right — it’s nothing more than saltwater. The process typically uses the salt potassium hydroxide, sometimes mixing it with other salts like sodium hydroxide. You may also have heard this solution called lye, which simply means a strongly alkaline solution. The amount of potash added depends on the weight of the remains.
The process works in much the same way that a body would naturally decompose in soil, except at an accelerated rate. In nature, your body takes anywhere from 10 to 50 years to decompose to a skeleton; with alkaline hydrolysis, the process can take anywhere from two to 12 hours.
Alkaline Hydrolysis Equipment
One factor that determines how long hydrolysis takes is not the solution, but the equipment:
- Some machines allow the body to simply sit in the solution — this takes the longest, but also emits the least amount of energy and greenhouse gases.
- Some tilt the body and use some form of solution agitator, which speeds up the process.
- Others heat the solution and pressurize the chamber, which also speeds up the process. The added pressure also prevents the solution from boiling. This takes the shortest amount of time but uses more energy (though still about one-third the amount of energy used and greenhouse gases emitted in traditional flame-based cremation).
None of the machines used in this process use any mechanical processes to break down remains. It is all done with the solution and/or pressure and heat.
After Alkaline Hydrolysis
Regardless of the equipment used, the process of alkaline hydrolysis results in the same thing. The body returns to its elements — amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts. All that’s left are the bones and any metal medical implants.
The bones are turned into the ashes you would normally expect from a traditional cremation. In many cases, there are actually more of them because none of the bone burns away in the process. The liquid containing the amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts is filtered and released into the sewer system.
This is the part of the process that seems to make people the most uncomfortable, but what is released is essentially the same materials that are released as smoke when a body is cremated. In addition to that, many of these materials are washed down the drain during the embalming process in a traditional burial.
Implications of Alkaline Hydrolysis on the Environment
During alkaline hydrolysis, all DNA is substantially, if not completely, destroyed. What remains has a sterility assurance level (SAL) around 10-6, meaning there is a one in a million chance a microbe isn’t sterile. According to the National Institutes of Health, a SAL of 10-6 is the established standard for sterilization.
One of the biggest issues is the pH level of the effluent. Many governmental bodies have standards pertaining to appropriate pH levels in wastewater. The solution, when it begins, has a pH level around 14 — the most alkaline solution possible — and by the end of the process it has usually dropped to around 11 or 12.
Throughout the U.S., an effluent pH of 10 to 11.5 is generally acceptable, but it varies by jurisdiction. In West Chicago, for example, the range is a pH of 6 to 9. Any funeral homes that want to perform alkaline hydrolysis there would have to treat the effluent via methods such as adding carbon dioxide.
Legality of Alkaline Hydrolysis
There are a lot of other regulations and standards that go along with alkaline hydrolysis. But before a funeral home can begin thinking about regulations, they have to consider whether the process is legal in their state.
As of right now, only 13 states in the U.S. consider alkaline hydrolysis legal. These include Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Vermont, and Wyoming. It was previously legal in New Hampshire, but lobbyists had it banned in 2008.
In Canada, only three providences consider it legal — Saskatchewan became the first province in 2012. Since then, Quebec and Ontario have legalized it as well.
According to the Cremation Association of North America, cremation rates are reaching as high as 74% in some locations. Combine that with a rise in “green” funerals, and it may be a matter of time before alkaline hydrolysis takes off.
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