Burial, Cremation, or... Down the Drain?
No one likes thinking about what happens after we die. Whether you believe in a greater purpose or not, the fact of the matter is your body is left behind on this Earth once you pass away. For thousands of years and still today, the traditional and sacred way of handling a deceased body has been either burial or cremation, earth or fire. But what if there was another way? Dealing with the dead is a subject that many firmly believe must be handled with the utmost respect, which is why a new scientific process called “alkaline hydrolysis,” is finding itself at the heart of a bioethical debate.
Alkaline hydrolysis, also referred to as green or water cremation, bio cremation, or flameless cremation, is an alternative water-based dissolution process for remains that utilizes alkaline chemicals, pressure, agitation, and heat to rapidly accelerate the natural decomposition of the human body.The solution used in the chemical process is 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide (1). Once the process is complete, the remains are reduced to bone and an organic liquid. According to the Cremation Association of North America, “the liquid is considered a sterile wastewater and discharged with the permission of the local wastewater treatment authority in accordance with federal state or provincial, and local laws” (2); in essence, this liquid can be flushed down a drain safely. The bones of the deceased person are retained so that they can be cleansed, dried, and easily crumbled into a substance similar to cremated ashes; then, the bone dust can be given to the deceased person’s family and scattered or buried in any way normally cremated ashes are handled. But why would scientists go to such lengths to create a new process of disposing of the dead? The answer is simple and not given the consideration it deserves: we must do what we can to protect the environment.
Few people consider the gravity of the damaging effects typical human burial and cremation have on the planet. Kate Kalanick, executive director of the Green Burial Council states, "Americans are funny about feeling like they own a 4-by-8 plot for eternity. In an environmental sense, traditional burial is selfish for the impact it has. I don't think people really think about how their death affects the land or our world” (3). Every year, tens of millions of people die on this Earth and their bodies have to be disposed. Most of these people will be buried, some will be cremated, but regardless, their bodies will be accompanied by pounds upon pounds of wood, metal, toxic embalming fluids, and other exceedingly harmful chemicals. By continuing traditional means of burial, mankind is effectively destroying the Earth. Burial renders the earth barren to new life and development due to the harsh chemicals that leach into the soil as the body takes years to fully decompose, and the energy required to burn a body down wreaks havoc on the environment by polluting the air and atmosphere--a single cremation requires about two SUV tanks worth of gas (4). Therefore, scientists are feeling the urgency to create a new solution to the death dilemma--one that either has no effect on the Earth or even one with the potential to help it.
There is a reason why alkaline hydrolysis is often referred to as “green cremation.” The organic liquid that results from the process is a byproduct composed of a nontoxic solution of amino acids, sugars, peptides, and soap that can be easily disposed of through sewage systems (1). Therefore, there is no leaching of chemicals slowly into the earth nor is there any harmful energy expenditure such as with flame cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis is a positive scientific innovation and a step in the right direction for the Earth’s future.
However, many have recoiled from the process in its entirety and have compared alkaline hydrolysis to “pouring loved ones down the drain.” Some who are opposed to the process believe that not enough is known about the possible safety and health issues of pouring the organic liquid down the drain, yet extensive monitoring in Florida has shown no adverse effects on water quality or harmful consequences to humans or animals (1). Those opposed also counter by decreeing that the science is detached, sacreligious, and highly disrespectful of the dead because even though the bones of the deceased are given to relatives, the organic liquid produced is ultimately disposed of by pouring it down the drain. The Catholic Conference of Ohio, a significant opponent to alkaline hydrolysis legislation in the state itself, vehemently argues that “dissolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resultant liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains” (1). However, the state of Ohio is currently reconsidering the issue, and a bill proposing the processes’ legalization is making its way through state legislature. Alkaline hydrolysis is already legalized in eighteen states and pending in three in the US. No decision as of yet has been made in Virginia (2).
Opponents find the process disrespectful, but a significant characterization that is often overlooked of alkaline hydrolysis is the fact that bodily fluids and blood are frequently and routinely “poured down the drain” during traditional embalming and burial practices. This new burial process essentially mirrors natural body decomposition but simply on a more rapid and safer scale. Instead of years, the process merely takes three to twelve hours depending on the temperature and pressure (1). Moreover, is this scientific process as highly disrespectable as it is labelled? Truly, is alkaline hydrolysis so much worse than leaving a body to decompose for years underground or chemically burned to ashes? The process is ultimately a greener alternative for the Earth that still respectfully supplies family and next of kin with the bones of the deceased to bury or store in an urn as they please.
Ultimately, alkaline hydrolysis is the most environmentally friendly method of handling the bodies of the deceased. This simple process alone has the potential to avert millions of tons of metal, wood, concrete, embalming fluid, and other severe chemicals from our Earth that are buried alongside bodies each year in US cemeteries. Intensive research has also found that the process is even more beneficial because alkaline hydrolysis neutralizes toxic drugs such as chemotherapy medicines and infectious organisms that reside within the body; furthermore, it avoids mercury emissions which are a byproduct of flame cremation and uses significantly less energy (1). Alkaline hydrolysis is not a disrespectful or damnable science. Mankind needs to stop thinking selfishly and turn our gaze to the world around us. If anything, alkaline hydrolysis provides a clear image of a greener future and a safer environment for generations to come.
“Alkaline Hydrolysis Laws in Your State.” NOLO.
“Alkaline Hydrolysis.” Cremation Association of North America.
Plenke, Max. “Traditional Burial is Polluting the Planet. Where Do We All Go When We Die?”. Mic. April 4, 2016.
Palus, Shannon. “How to be Eco-friendly When You’re Dead”. The Atlantic. October 30, 2014.