WISCONSIN - Imagine a cremation process so environmentally friendly that you could drink a glass of the water that just dissolved your loved one.
That’s the promise of water cremation, or “alkaline hydrolysis,” a process of disposing of human remains that’s catching on as an alternative to traditional burial or heat cremation.
For one local family, water cremation was an obvious choice. “Flame cremation sounded like a horrible procedure with the high temperature and the fire,” said Greg Davis of Boscobel, who recently laid his father to rest in September 2021. “We found water cremation to be a little more of a personal thing,” he said.
How does it work?
In a nutshell, water cremation speeds up the natural process of decomposition, according to Dean Fisher, former director of the donated body program at UCLA and the Anatomical Bequest program at the Mayo Clinic, and a funeral director who helped the Davis family with their water cremation.
Fisher explained that the body is placed in a tank of waster that contains potassium hydroxide, a naturally occurring alkaline compound.
“We are trying to take what happens naturally in the ground using 5 percent potassium hydroxide,” he explained, compared to about 2 percent in the dirt of a burial plot. “The remainder of the tank is filled with 95 percent water.”
Heat, and sometimes pressure and agitation, help dissolve soft tissue, leaving bone fragments and a neutral liquid called effluent.
The process takes three to five hours and the remaining bone fragments are dried and cooled after the process. Powdered, the bones replace the ash that is then sent back to family members, according to Fisher.
A “green” process
A key selling point for water cremation, which uses no fossil fuels, is as an environmentally friendly alternative to other forms of burial.
“Instead of burning the body at 2,000 degrees, we are gently dissolving the body away. In the end, there is no DNA left and the water is completely sterile,” said John Hughes, owner and funeral director of Hughes Funeral Alternatives in St Louis, Missouri.
“It is not a combustion process,” Hughes said. “We are not using open flames and its 100 percent mercury free. It cuts electricity usage by 66 percent overall and is 95 percent better for the environment or 18 times less the carbon footprint because nothing is getting released into the atmosphere and environment,” he said.
Body augmentation—pacemakers, replacement hips, and other potentially toxins—can remain in the body for later removal, whereas traditional cremation requires these to be removed prior to burning to avoid air contamination.
Fisher stressed that the water left over at the end of the process is clean. “In Los Angeles, we tested the water 30 times with all the tests coming back safe. They finally gave us our water permit acknowledging that it was alright for us to dump the water from this process into the wastewater sanitation system,” he said.
It takes just under 300 gallons of water to dissolve the body, according to Fisher— about the same amount that the average U.S. household consumes in a day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Not legal in Wisconsin
According to Fisher, alkaline hydrolysis is “taking off.” Four midwestern states have legalized the process including Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Missouri according to Green Cremation, a Texasbased funeral home advocating for the process.
“It is gaining traction,” Fisher said. “There are 22 states that have approved it.”
In Wisconsin, alkaline hydrolysis was part of a bipartisan bill that was introduced to the Wisconsin legislature in 2019. The bill did not pass, leaving the Alkaline Hydrolysis cremation process illegal in Wisconsin.
“I actually helped draft the bill for it in Wisconsin,” said Jimmy Olson, a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association. “It passed through the Senate, and it went over to the Assembly,” he said.
Olsen reported that opposition from Catholic lobbying groups helped kill the bill.
“We have had conversations with the Catholic Church in Wisconsin before about this, and they dislike it similar to flame cremation,” Olson said. “They believe that the body should remain whole and placed directly in consecrated ground.”“Things have changed over the years and will continue to change,” Olson said. “I think eventually this will be legal in Wisconsin.”