California is looking to join a growing list of states that allow a third funeral option to cremation and traditional burial.
Alkaline hydrolysis, or ‘water cremation’ as it’s often called, is touted as an eco-friendly option, using less energy and resulting in fewer toxic emissions than cremation, advocates say. The process involves the dissolution of tissue in a chemical bath in a special chamber.
“The body is placed in a cylinder filled two-thirds with water, alkaline is put in, then it’s heated for a few hours,” said Terry McHale, a spokesman for the California Funderal Directors Association.
At the end of the process, chalky bones remain that can be placed in an urn, as after a fire cremation.
The process is an accelerated version of the natural decomposition that takes place after a body is buried, compressing a potentially 25-year process to a few hours, according to information posted on various funeral industry sites.
Although the concept of water cremation is foreign, and might be disquieting to some, it’s a worthwhile option because of its environmental advantages, said McHale.
More than a century ago, when cremation came to the West, it was controversial. In the early 1990s, only 20 percent of bodies were cremated, compared to about 62 percent last year, said McHale.
The bill, authored by Assemblyman Todd Gloria, was passed by the senate and assembly, and now awaits the governor’s signature to become law.
The state legislature has considered bills allowing the option twice in the past, but it did not prevail those times due to concerns about disposing of the remaining liquid and chemicals, said Nick Serrano, a spokesman in Gloria’s office. However, those concerns were addressed with regulations for proper disposal.
The waste product is to be treated to bring the alkalinity to a ‘benign level” before it may be disposed of, McHale said.
Other objections to water cremation are religious, and some consider dissolving the body this way and disposing of the liquid remains disrespectful.
McHale and Serrano both stressed the importance of people having a greener alternative to traditional funeral practices.
“If your faith allows you to do that, we want it to be on the table – it’s about choice,” Serrano said.
McHale said water cremation would be handled “with the same respect and dignity” of any other method – be it cremation, burial in the ground or at sea – currently in use.
The process was developed in the early 2000s, after disease ravaged cattle in Great Britain. The company WR2 created and patented a method to completely sterilize infected carcasses, according to a BBC News article. A few years later, the Mayo Clinic began exploring the idea of using alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of cadavers used in research.
With modifications, the tissue digesting machine showed potential for use.
Water cremation is already allowed in 17 states, including Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Idaho.
Advocates feel that over time, people will come to embrace water cremation because of its environmental advantages -- after they get over the strangeness of it.
Sandy Sullivan, a biochemist for WR2, has been a pioneer of alkaline hydrolysis – but it’s been an uphill climb, he told the BBC.
“It’s a conservative market,” said Sullivan. “When you come in with a new idea, you know, it kind of puts a cat among the pigeons and you’re not easily accepted.”