If you’ve been listening at all to the news around green burial and deathcare, you may have heard the term alkaline hydrolysis. Or maybe you’ve heard water cremation, green cremation, aquamation, or bio-cremation. Whichever term you’ve heard, you’re likely still wondering what this is and what the talk is about so let’s dive into aquamation.
What is alkaline hydrolysis?
As you might have guessed from the list of additional terms above, alkaline hydrolysis is cremation by water. The process involves the body being broken down in a solution of 95% water with the other 5% being an alkaline activator, all of which is heated to create a chemical reaction, leading to the body being broken down over a period of time. Depending on the provider, the factors involved vary. Some use potassium hydroxide and some use sodium hydroxide. Some allow for a slower process at a lower temperature, for example 199 degrees over 18 hours, whereas others use higher temperatures over a shorter period of time. The final result will be the same regardless. A natural decomposition of the body results in liquid byproduct and bone material and leftover implants if applicable.
What are the benefits of alkaline hydrolysis?
The benefits are several, with the most environmentally friendly one being the fact that 80-90% less energy is used in water cremation vs. flame cremation. Cremation by fire can use the same amount of energy and off put the same amount of carbon dioxide as a 600 mile car trip (roughly 500 lbs of CO2). Cremation by water uses far less energy than flame and is not as harmful to the environment.
Another benefit is that it is a much gentler process very similar to natural decomposition, which provides families more emotional comfort. In addition, while some religions prohibit cremation by fire due to the use of flame, some allow water cremation as long as the liquid byproduct does not literally go into waste (spoiler alert for below – it doesn’t have to be treated as “wastewater”).
How is water cremation different from flame cremation?
In addition to the literal process being different, there are other notable differences when choosing water cremation. Because of the gentle treatment with water, the human remains – bone material – that are processed tend to be whiter and softer than people know from how traditional cremation ashes appear. Another significant difference is that water cremation is more gentle and less invasive. Because fire is not involved, implants such as pacemakers do not need to be removed, so the process is very minimally invasive. Any joint, pacemaker, silicone or other implants can simply be retrieved at the end of the process and responsibly recycled.
What is this “grey water” we hear of?
The grey water refers to the liquid byproduct that remains at the end of the hydrolysis process. This is a byproduct that consists of water, amino acids, peptides, and sugars, but no DNA. Approximately 300 gallons of water are used in alkaline hydrolysis and this byproduct is treated differently by different providers. Some discharge the water into the ocean as waste water. Some providers are starting to provide small (or larger, if requested) amounts back to the family, and some are donating the water to farms. The byproduct is so rich in these amino acids, peptides, and sugars that it makes for excellent fertilizer, and some families choose to receive some of this liquid byproduct or donate it to flower or tree farms (through their funeral provider), so that their loved ones can truly return back to the land, there is zero waste, and the loved ones can live on through nature.
Is alkaline hydrolysis available near me?
That all depends on where you are. Aquamation is now available in Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories in Canada, and in 21 U.S. states. However, it is thus far not legal in British Columbia, where I am based, which is somewhat ironic given that we are one of the more progressively “green” provinces. The delay is a result of slow environmental assessments before considering changes to zoning. Several deathcare providers in BC have banded together to create and sign a petition to bring aquamation to BC and you can sign the petition here if you feel so inclined.
Do you have any additional questions about alkaline hydrolysis? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me, Laurie Hurtubise at Anora Cremation, Burial, and Events, with your queries.