Welcome to The Undark Podcast. In this episode, join technology journalist Nicole Edwards and this month’s host Lacy Roberts as they explore the debate over a new, and possibly greener technology for cremating human remains — alkaline hydrolysis, known as water cremation or aquamation.
Jocelyne Monette: There’s no pretty way to get rid of a body. That’s what I tell everybody, you know, what do you want to do? We got to take care of the dead, right? We don’t have a choice.
Nicole Edwards: This is Jocelyne Monette. She started a disposition and memorial service for pets in 2004. But as a deep lover of nature, she wasn’t happy with the emissions that come from cremation.
Jocelyne Monette: I was like, there’s got to be a greener way to do this. I really want to offer something different to families. And that’s when I started researching it and came across alkaline hydrolysis … my machine was delivered in 2012.
Nicole Edwards: Alkaline hydrolysis has a similar effect to fire cremation. But it uses water and alkaline chemicals instead of fire. With the help of a machine, the heated mixture completely breaks down the flesh on an animal’s carcass — leaving clean, sterilized bone fragments behind. The rest, called effluent, just goes down the drain.
Jocelyne Monette: The public loved it. They thought it was unbelievable. So much so that right now in B.C. there’s a big movement to try and get this approved for humans as well.
Nicole Edwards: But the province of British Columbia says it isn’t ready to approve the use of alkaline hydrolysis on humans. In B.C., it’s the Solicitor General’s office that has the power to add it to the list of legal ways to dispose of a body — something funeral directors abide by. They declined an interview, but they did say they’re looking into it, and the effects of the procedure on the environment is one of their main concerns. After a decade of advocacy, Monette and her fellow green death enthusiasts are still trying to convince lawmakers and the public to get on board.
Jocelyne Monette: We’ve been at them since 2012. Let families decide if they want water or fire, we’re still giving the same thing at the end, which is bone in an urn. Nothing is different other than the process. And I can’t answer why they’re having such a hard time with this. I really can’t.
Lacy Roberts: This is the Undark Podcast. I’m your host this month, Lacy Roberts. Alkaline hydrolysis is an end-of-life option that’s gaining popularity in Canada and the U.S. So far, it’s offered in three provinces, and less than half of U.S. states. It’s marketed as a greener form of cremation — a way to still end up with ashes, but without sending harmful emissions into the air. But getting lawmakers to officially recognize it has been a big challenge. Each province and state has a specific list of ways you can dispose of dead bodies, and adding alkaline hydrolysis requires a change in the law. That’s where the funeral industry, religious groups, and public opinion can sometimes stop it in its tracks. Some of those opposed feel we don’t know enough about the environmental impacts of the effluent — the byproduct left over after the person has been processed. And others worry that because that effluent goes down the drain, alkaline hydrolysis is an undignified way to handle the dead. Nicole Edwards has the story.
Nicole Edwards: Alkaline hydrolysis, water cremation, aquamation — the procedure goes by many names. It’s just one of the many green death options that are picking up popularity all over North America and around the world. In South Africa, the late Desmond Tutu chose water cremation for his final wish. After 36 years in the industry, eco-friendly funeral director Chris Benesch, who runs a funeral home in British Columbia, Canada, wants to offer it to his clients. As a second-generation funeral service provider, he’s intimately familiar with the environmental impact that comes with disposing of the dead.
Chris Benesch: Most cemeteries, especially in large cities, they demand a concrete lining to the grave. So the casket actually goes into this burial vault. So you have a concrete shell, you have the casket itself, what is it made of? Wood or steel. But then the casket would break down, and then eventually the vault. But I suspect it’s gonna be years before that ever broke down completely.
Nicole Edwards: The process to preserve bodies, to make them look more lifelike for viewing, also has an environmental impact. A study from 2012 found 827,060 gallons of embalming chemicals, primarily formaldehyde, are buried every year in the U.S. A pair of researchers at the National Center for Groundwater Management at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, called graveyards “a special kind of landfill” — something the World Health Organization has echoed. But because death is so taboo, it can be hard to secure funding to study the long-term effect of graveyards on the environment. Not a lot of in-depth research from recent years exists. In 2016 and 2017, a Lansing, Michigan, Geological Survey found graveyards may be a source of chemical and microbial contamination to nearby groundwater, but the research, they say, is preliminary.
Cremation is far more popular than traditional burial — in B.C., the cremation rate has held steady at 85 percent since 2015, and the Cremation Association of North America projects cremations will only increase across North America in the years to come.
Chris Benesch: With traditional flame cremation, natural gas is ignited in a flame and it blows in under pressure. And it reduces the body down to, basically, a skeleton in bone fragments. And once cool, then they’re processed by a grinding process to make them into a finer powder to put into an urn. We often use the word ashes but they’re really not ashes. It’s actual bone fragment that’s been ground down and processed.
Nicole Edwards: Of course, where there’s fire, there’s smoke.
Chris Benesch: So not only are we using fossil fuels, we’re also sending the byproducts up through the smokestack out into the environment. Things like amalgam fillings in the teeth, certain drugs that are cancer treatment drugs, those types of things are all going up into the atmosphere, along with carbon.
Juliette O’Keeffe: So you have products of incineration which will become your air pollutants. When we’re cremating humans and funeral accessories, like your coffins, etc. It’s anything that combusts during that process.
Nicole Edwards: Juliette O’Keeffe is an environmental health and knowledge translation scientist. Her job is to comb through environmental studies and synthesize information for government health authorities and policymakers. O’Keeffe researched the effects of crematoriums on air quality for Canada’s National Collaborating Center for Environmental Health. Here’s what she found.
Juliette O’Keeffe: So you have things like particulate matter and fine dust. You could have dioxins and furans from the combustion of plastics. With people that have had dental amalgam fillings, you could also have pollutants such as mercury, and general combustion gasses from the combustion process … carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide …
Nicole Edwards: Even though O’Keeffe’s list of pollutants from cremation sounds long, the funeral industry is really only responsible for a tiny amount of emissions overall. Take carbon dioxide emissions, for example. Out of the total amount every year, about 0.02 percent is caused by cremating remains. Because the impact in Canada alone is so small, O’Keeffe says the industry’s emissions aren’t that closely monitored.
Juliette O’Keeffe: There’s not sort of like a national regulator for these small-scale air quality impacts. And ongoing monitoring maybe comes up if there are complaints or concerns raised from a community or there’s obvious issues through smoke or odor or visual impacts. But it’s a bit of a gap actually on sort of monitoring the actual air quality impacts. That’s why there’s a lot of questions. And there’s not a lot of information out there.
Nicole Edwards: While municipalities may take a burn first, do environmental studies later approach to cremation, aquamation hasn’t enjoyed the same light oversight — much to the chagrin of researchers who want to see it mainstreamed.
Dean Fisher: Well, first of all, the science is there. This isn’t something that we just dreamed up one day and decided, hey, we’re just gonna do this and then we’ll worry about the science later.
Nicole Edwards: Meet mortuary scientist Dean Fisher. Back in 2011, Fisher and other scientists gathered evidence to help make the case for alkaline hydrolysis to the City of Los Angeles. At the time, Fisher was head of the donated body program at UCLA, and his team wanted to use alkaline hydrolysis to dispose of remains donated to science. He’s become an aquamation evangelist in the years since, and works as a consultant in the field.
At UCLA, Fisher and his team used a machine called the Resomator S 750. Here he is explaining how it works, and what they had to do to get the City of Los Angeles to let them operate.
Dean Fisher: So when you walk into the room with the resomator, you push the button, you verify the weight of the individual, whether it’s embalmed or not embalmed, and you press start, and four hours later, you come back and you open up the door. So it’s kind of like running your dishwasher or your washer at home.
Nicole Edwards: From the outside, a resomator looks pretty inconspicuous. It’s a large, rectangular stainless steel box with a screen displaying control options on the side, and a gauge that looks like a speedometer on the front. The biggest indication that there’s precious cargo inside is the resomator’s door. It’s circular and thick — surrounded by big, shiny silver bolts. It’s the same heavy duty door used on British submarines. During aquamation, a body is placed on a tray and loaded inside the machine’s cylindrical cavity. A series of pipes pump in a temperature-controlled solution of either potassium or sodium hydroxide and water, and the machine spins the fluid around the body, digesting the corpse.
Dean Fisher: So it’s a very strong base. And that reacts with the protein and the fats in the body. And it dissolves those proteins and those fats, leaving the calcium, or the bone fragments, intact.
So what we’re doing is we’re taking what happens in the ground, and it would take anywhere from a matter of months to years, depending on whether the body was embalmed or not. And we’re speeding that up, we’re adding heat and we’re adding agitation to it by circulating the water around it. So that what normally takes years or months, we can do in a matter of three to five hours.
Nicole Edwards: When the resomator has done its job, the flesh on the body has been liquified and sterilized, leaving only the bones and any unnatural elements behind — like prosthetics. The liquified flesh, called effluent, goes down the drain, and into the sewer system. That brings us to the first big question people operating machines like the resomator often have to answer. Before navigating legal red tape, or debating the morality of flushing human remains into the sewer, practitioners have to prove the effluent isn’t harmful. Michael Simpson is the manager of the City of Los Angeles’ industrial waste management division — his department monitors the effluent from UCLA’s aquamation machine.
Michael Simpson: So we use actual organisms at the plant to eat up some of our bad chemicals, and take those organisms and reuse it over and over again. So we treat the water like nature would treat it. Now when they discharge something in our sewer that’s so strong, it can kill those enzymes … so we have to make sure that whatever they put in the sewer system can be purified at our plant through this enzyme method. The first thing we ask whoever’s running the business is to give us a detailed analysis on what’s in the effluent as it comes out of the machine. When they resomate and use alkaline hydrolysis, that does emit a very high pH. So we ask whoever was doing it to put in an oxidizer to take that pH down.
Nicole Edwards: If you remember your high school chemistry, a neutral pH level is 7. Water has a pH of 7 for example. Moving backwards down the scale towards 1, things become more acidic. Higher, and it’s a base. Soap usually comes in at a 9 or 10. Lemon juice, on the other hand, has a pH of 2 or 3. Each municipality has a different pH tolerance, depending on what’s commonly flushed into their sewer system. Here’s Fisher again.
Dean Fisher: So when it comes out of the machine, we’ve seen the pH runs anywhere from about 11 and a half to 12 and a half. So what we end up doing then is since some municipalities want us to actually treat that before sending it to them. Other municipalities, they actually welcome that pH because the majority of what’s going to them is acidic, so that helps neutralize it and get closer to a seven when they’re neutralizing the water prior to putting it back in our aquifers.
Nicole Edwards: It took a few years of testing, but eventually the city was satisfied.
Dean Fisher: In fact, they told us since this process creates a soap out of our body, they told us we have the cleanest line in Westwood California, so …
Nicole Edwards: Although the water can be recycled, the procedure isn’t completely green. Monette, the advocate you met earlier, says this is aquamation’s biggest flaw.
Jocelyne Monette: I think humans, every time they try to find a different way to do a process to try and help the environment, they create another problem. Water cremation? The problem is that we use potable water.
Nicole Edwards: A water cremation machine uses about 300 gallons of water per body, which is the same amount of water the average American household uses each day. In L.A., the wastewater from Fisher’s facility was treated at a plant called the Hyperion. That plant gets an average of 275 million gallons of wastewater per day in dry weather. Here’s Fisher again.
Dean Fisher: Just to kind of give you an idea, if we were to take all of the people in California that died in a year, say they all died on the same day and we all ran them through the resomator on the very same day, we would end up using about 75 million gallons of water — which seems like, wow, that’s a lot that, you know, that’s 250,000 people times 300 gallons of water per person. But now if you take that, in the big world of water recycling, the Hyperion plant in Los Angeles, they actually process 560 million gallons of water a day. In the water recycling world, it’s a very small volume.
Nicole Edwards: After satisfying the city’s sanitation team, legal considerations come in. In Fisher’s case, it took lobbyists, panels of scientists, and several years of work to get the clearance he and his team needed to operate out of UCLA. For the average funeral director, like Benesch in British Columbia, getting that kind of support is hard. According to the Solicitor General, currently B.C. only officially recognizes traditional cremation and burial under the law. And adding water cremation isn’t a quick fix. Because strangely, there are different understandings of what constitutes cremation from one province or state to the next, so there’s no one-size-fits-all way to make these legislative changes.
Chris Benesch: Right now, the province says that you can bury a body in a cemetery or place of interment, or you can cremate a body. But the actual word cremation is not defined in the law. It just says by cremation. So we’ve asked our province to recognize the definition of cremation as any processes used to bring or reduce the body to bone and its simplest elements. They have not embraced that.
Nicole Edwards: What Benesch is saying is that it’s not definitively illegal to aquamate a body in B.C., but the province has made it clear they won’t permit the process. That leaves funeral directors in a legal gray area. Emily Albrecht, a Seattle-based attorney who specializes in funeral law says …
Emily Albrecht: The key thing with the definition of cremation is whether or not a state’s pre-existing legislation includes the word, or some derivative, of incineration. Legally, at the core element of it, it would be the reduction of human remains to the point of bone fragments. So that’s why, with alkaline hydrolysis, too, some people call it water cremation. And I think that whole movement, it’s kind of an effort to get it put under the umbrella of cremation.
Nicole Edwards: Remember, the end result is the same whether you’re cremated by water or by fire — you get bone, which gets ground into the powder we call ashes. So if lawmakers in B.C. define cremation the way Albrecht just did — simply as reducing the body to bone, it gives Benesch the leeway to say, “Hey, alkaline hydrolysis reduces bodies to bone. So technically this is cremation, even if there’s no flame.” Snags like this exist in legal language around cremation across Canada and the U.S.
Emily Albrecht: The states which have a definition of cremation that specify via incineration, those are the states where you do have to do new legislation in order to legalize any other form of disposition beyond burial or traditional flame-based cremation. Some other states that don’t have that element in their definition of cremation have been able to determine that alkaline hydrolysis still falls underneath the purview of whatever their current definition of cremation is. So they didn’t have to go through that process.
Nicole Edwards: Once funeral directors figure out which legal path they’ll have to take to operate, there’s one last thing to think about. And that’s the question of morality. Will the community the funeral home serves think sending human remains into the sewer counts as a dignified death? That’s one of the sticking points in Hawaii, where the case for permitting water cremation is going through the courts. Among its opponents is the HFCA — that’s the Hawaii Funeral and Cemetery Association. They say the process needs further review before Hawaii is ready to adopt it. Their testimony references concerns about dignity that have been raised by other communities debating the introduction of alkaline hydrolysis — including states where community opposition led to stalling or banning the uptake of water cremation.
Across cultures and through generations, the criteria for a dignified death significantly differs. For hundreds of years, Albrecht says the standard for decent disposal of remains was set by the Catholic Church, which has always favored burial — and still does. Their influence over what people chose to do with human remains is evident in Christian countries around the world.
Emily Albrecht: Their lobbying efforts when it comes to alkaline hydrolysis have been kind of with the campaign of, that the process is disrespectful to the human body because effluent goes down the drain. And so their position is kind of like, ok, well this is disrespectful, you’re basically like pouring grandma down the drain. That’s the one that gets thrown around a lot. And that’s been really effective. Because just that imagery of somebody’s grandma being poured down the drain gets people really worked up, right?
Nicole Edwards: In New Hampshire, water cremation was being considered by the state in 2013. Meredith Cook, who was the Catholic Diocese of Manchester’s director of public policy at the time, said the diocese was opposed because, quote, “every human person has an innate dignity that calls for the remains of every deceased person to be treated with the utmost respect,” end quote.
In the Hawaii case, the HFCA’s testimony references the concerns of the Catholic Conference in Ohio, from a case in that state about a decade ago. They said, quote, “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,” end quote. That was when funeral director, Jeff Edwards, introduced the procedure in their state. He performed 19 aquamations before lawmakers had officially given the procedure their blessing.
Emily Albrecht: So this person, kind of, was a rebel. They were like, you know what, technically, it’s not illegal. So I’m gonna go get a machine and start doing this. And the Catholic Diocese got involved to make it affirmatively illegal, which is not the case in any other state that I’m aware of. And that’s a big distinction. Often, when I talk about alkaline hydrolysis, I like to point out, you know, there’s a difference between being legal and being not illegal. Right? And I know that sounds like my lawyer way of like, snaking around the issue. But I mean it’s true, right? So unless it’s affirmatively made illegal in your state statute, just because it’s not named as a legal method of disposition, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily illegal.
Nicole Edwards: Machines can cost up to $400,00 dollars, so even if alkaline hydrolysis isn’t illegal in a given area, it’s a lot of money for funeral homes to spend without the guarantee they’ll be able to use their machine. Funeral directors that buy them before getting lawmakers and residents on board do so at their own risk. In some ways, history repeats here. Fire cremation, which is on track to be the choice of 60 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians by 2025, was once controversial too.
Emily Albrecht: When traditional flame-based cremation became an option, a widespread option, because that took a really long time too, the Catholic Church in particular was staunchly opposed. Going again back to traditional English law, and the involvement that the church had in disposition of human remains, you know, they were basically the main provider, so much like a casket provider has a business interest that would cause them to be opposed to a new method of disposition, the Catholic Church resisted it for a long time. People used to get arrested if they would cremate somebody. That’s how serious it was.
Nicole Edwards: Mark Brosens is interim director of public relations and communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto. Today, he says, most church communities have the power to decide what they’re comfortable with when it comes to their rituals. Rules come from the Vatican and are adapted locally. In Toronto, for example, where cremation is popular, the Catholic Archdiocese actually owns and operates its own crematorium.
The first step in this direction was in the 1850s. The Natural History Museum in London, U.K, says during this period, people in that city were looking for solutions for disposing of human remains. As the city grew, so did the fear that the proximity to bodies, which some said they could smell, might cause illness. Rowdy wakes for the dead were also concerns at the time, along with the popular fear of being buried alive. Later that century, Italian pathologist and inventor Lodovico Brunetti debuted his version of the modern crematorium chamber, making it possible to do cremations without setting fires in open air for the first time. It caught the eye of Queen Victoria’s surgeon, Sir Henry Thompson, who promoted it in the name of public health. The trend and the technology picked up across the Atlantic at the same time. Still, it wasn’t regulated by Parliament in England until 1903. In the U.S., the date was 1876, starting with the first crematory in Pennsylvania.
Emily Albrecht: Because a lot of people, I mean everyone, was coming over from Europe, and they had been raised to believe that the only decent method of disposition was burial, whether it was coming directly from the church, or just the cultural mindset in general, they were resistant to it as well. So it took a long time for it to become affirmatively legalized.
Nicole Edwards: A similar, slow process of affirmative legalization is unfolding today, state by state, province by province, as environmentalists push alkaline hydrolysis into the mainstream.
Chris Benesch: So it’s very near and dear to me to walk away from two generations of funeral service providers in my family, to now I have the third generation, my son and my nephew are funeral directors, I would like to hand the reins over to them and say you guys now have a new technology that you’re able to use and help better our services to the communities. Something that we didn’t have, in the past two generations, available.
Lacy Roberts: Thank you for joining us today, Nicole.
Nicole Edwards: Thanks for having me.
Lacy Roberts: So tell me more about the green funeral movement. Are there other avenues for people who are seeking green funerals that aren’t in such a legal grey zone?
Nicole Edwards: Yes. Absolutely. So the green burial movement as we know it today started in North America around 2005. That’s when the Green Burial Council was first formed in the U.S., and that council sets standards for the death industry — from cemeteries, to casket manufacturers, everybody in that ecosystem — to help them standardize what counts as green in this industry. And not every funeral service is as legally ambiguous as the one we talked about in this episode. I was actually pretty surprised that there are a number of options for people. So some cemeteries just make a simple adjustment where they don’t require that concrete burial vault to go in before the casket with the body in it. So people just get laid right into the ground which of course speeds up the reabsorption process, and then there are lots of regions too that have conservation spaces where people are buried. So instead of having a traditional gravestone, you get coordinates for your loved one and you can go visit them based on those map coordinates.
Lacy Roberts: Oh, wow.
Nicole Edwards: Yeah, yeah, it’s really interesting. And that one’s kind of a two-for-one because not only is the body being buried in a greener way than it would be in a typical cemetery, but choosing to be buried in those spaces actually is conserving the land because cities won’t develop on top of areas where people are buried so you kind of guarantee that the space above you is green forevermore.
Lacy Roberts: Wow, that’s super interesting. So you mention in the piece that opponents to water cremation consider it to be disrespectful to the dead. But there is a case you told me about where a group sees it as a way to honor their loved ones who’ve passed. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Nicole Edwards: Yeah, that’s a case in Hawaii that’s playing out as we speak, actually. And in addition to the green death advocates there, there’s a group that sees alkaline hydrolysis as a way to bring back traditional Hawaiian burial practices. And in those practices, having clean bone is a really important part of the tradition, of the ceremony, and alkaline hydrolysis does provide that. So particularly the folks at Aloha Mortuary have been really vocal about the potential that introducing this technology has to offer traditional burials to Hawaiian communities. And I should add the latest update that we have on the case in Hawaii is that the bill is now moving through the legislature, so it’s making progress.
Lacy Roberts: You mentioned that the late Desmond Tutu chose aquamation for his final wishes. Is this a sign that aquamation has caught on significantly in South Africa, or anywhere else?
Nicole Edwards: No, it hasn’t really been picked up in many places outside North America. So Desmond Tutu popularized the fact that South Africa has it available. And I believe you’re also able to be aquamated in Australia and in Mexico. But funny enough, the first machine used in the U.S. was actually imported from the U.K. It’s made by a company based in Leeds, and that company actually can’t offer the services that they create the machine to provide because they’re also stuck in that gridlock that we talked about in British Columbia, where although it’s not affirmatively illegal, the wastewater permit piece hasn’t been put in place yet, so folks can’t actually use those machines. So I don’t think that it’s too new. I just think that it’s taboo.
Lacy Roberts: Nicole Edwards is a technology journalist based in Toronto. Our theme music was produced by the Undark Team with additional music in today’s episode from Kevin McLeod, Podington Bear, and Blue Dot Sessions. I’m Lacy Roberts. See you next time.