What is Water Cremation?
by Maggie Thompson
Water cremation is an eco-friendly alternative to flame-based cremation and casket burial. It is known by several terms: bio cremation, green cremation, flameless cremation, hydro cremation, resomation, and alkaline hydrolysis. Throughout this blog, we'll refer to the process as water cremation. It is basically an accelerated version of what takes place in natural decomposition.
Is water cremation new?
As long ago as 1888, alkaline hydrolysis was patented in the United States for the treatment of bones and animal waste, originally developed to safely dispose of animal remains after exposure to things like Mad Cow Disease. The technology has been used in laboratories for decades. The process was modernized in the 1990s and has been used for human cadavers and dead pets in medical and teaching settings at the conclusion of scientific research performed on bodies donated for anatomical studies. About 10 years ago, the machines became available for standard funerary use.
What is the process of water cremation?
- The body is placed in a cylinder of a specialized stainless-steel machine called a resomator.
- The vessel is filled with about 90 gallons of water combined with an alkali or salt derived from sodium hydroxide and/or potassium hydroxide.
- The chamber is heated to 350 degrees and pressurized to prevent boiling.
- Water, alkali, heat and pressure are gently circulated over the body, working together to cause a reaction that begins and completes the cremation process.
- After two to three hours, the body’s soft tissues of protein and fat are reduced into a by-product of sterile brown effluent made up of minerals, salts, amino acids, soap and water. This sterile liquid is drained and recycled to the earth through the local water treatment system.
- The remaining soft bone fragments are rinsed and processed into ash that resembles flour – a pure white powder, which is larger in volume and more finely textured than the gray ash from traditional flame cremation.
Why choose water cremation?
This process is an environmentally friendly choice because there are almost zero air emissions released into the atmosphere. Water cremation offers the following environmental advantages over flame cremation:
- There are no vaporized mercury emissions. Thus, no filtration or abatement systems are required. Mercury from dental amalgam is contained and recycled.
- Caskets are not burned, which produces less carbon dioxide and conserves natural resources.
- Its carbon footprint is about a tenth of that caused by flame cremation. Use of fossil fuels is reduced and greenhouse gases are minimized.
- The process is energy efficient using only about 1/8 the energy as that used with flame cremation.
- The effluent by-product is sterile, with no harmful chemical or microbial contamination. This liquid can be used to enrich soil chemistry.
- It preserves about 20% more bone fragments than flame cremation.
- The bone ash is 100% sterile, completely neutralized, disease and pathogen free.
- Pacemakers do not need to be surgically removed prior to the process.
- Medical implants are unaffected and can possibly be recycled.
What are the downsides of water cremation?
There isn’t a long list of downsides to water cremation. But the few downsides are major concerns. They include:
- The by-product liquid is released into local wastewater treatment systems. Many people are uncomfortable with this and perceive it as a lack of respect for the human body and the deceased.
- The discharge waste is a stronger base than a typical household drain unclogging fluid. Scientific American states that it “exceeds pH 11, the limit for discharge into the environment set by Los Angeles to protect against corrosion of skin and metal. Other cities have even stricter standards. In San Francisco nothing beyond pH 9 can go down the drain.”
- For funeral directors, the initial investment cost of the resomator machine is significant, ranging from $150,000 to $500,000.
- Each water cremation uses about 300 gallons of water per corpse.
- In many states water cremation is not yet available to the general public.
The Scientific American website article, "Dissolve the Dead? Controversy Swirls Around Liquid Cremation," states, “How we treat our dead is a delicate issue. The ‘yuck factor’ that often accompanies thinking about what happens to bodies of our loved ones was invoked by an Indiana lawmaker (and casket maker) to derail alkaline hydrolysis there. ‘We’re going to put them in acid [sic] and just let them dissolve away, and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,' said state Rep. Dick Hamm, as reported by The Indianapolis Star.”
Because of the water consumption required, water cremation could pose a problem in areas experiencing drought.
What is the cost of water cremation?
The cost of water cremation and flame cremation appears to be similar. Water ranges between $1,795 to $4,320; flame ranges from $1,500 to $4,000. In large part, the price spread is determined by services included in a cremation "package," such as transport, an urn, on-site ceremony, and paperwork. Both water and flame cremation are lower than the cost of a traditional casket burial.
Where is water cremation available?
- Water cremation has been legalized, has regulations that set standards for service providers, and is available for the processing of human remains in the following eight states: Minnesota, Illinois, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Kansas, Colorado, and Oregon.
- In October 2017, California became the 15th state to outline commercial regulations for water cremation. Other states with legal regulations in place and that are working toward the next step of water cremation becoming available for the general public are: Georgia, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Michigan, and Vermont.
- States considering water cremation legislation are: New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
- Stay tuned! Water cremation is gaining popularity throughout the United States. In some places where it is available, funeral directors report that more than two-thirds of families who decide on cremation choose this new method when it is offered.
How can I be assured I’ll receive my loved one’s ashes after water cremation?
Because the resomator is designed to process one body at a time, there should be no confusion about the identity of the ashes. The International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) publishes industry standards and cremation guidelines, and states that: “Upon taking custody of the human remains, the entity in charge of the final disposition should verify that the container which encases the human remains bears identification of the deceased and is accompanied by the proper documentation.”
What memorial options are available after water cremation?
Memorial options are the same as those available for flame cremation. These options include:
- Funerals, graveside, and church memorial services
- Life celebrations tailored to the wishes of the deceased or the surviving family
- Scattering ceremonies in water or on land
- Bringing the ashes home
What to do with ashes after cremation?
- Ashes can be transferred into burial urns, and then the urn can be interred in a cemetery plot or a columbarium. Keep in mind that the total volume of water cremation ashes is 20% larger than that of flame cremation. Customer service representatives at OneWorld Memorials can offer assistance in determining memorial urns that would be the appropriate size and material. The Contemporary Cherry Wood Cremation Urn is an example of a burial urn.
- Ashes can also be transferred into a memorial urn for display in a home or office. Display urns are available in a range of materials including wood, ceramic, marble and stone, metal, and glass such as the lovely Red Rose Stained Glass Cremation Urn.
- There are biodegradable eco friendly cremation urns for land or water burials.
- Small portions of ashes can be kept in keepsake urns. This option offers the possibility for sharing ashes among family and loved ones.
- Cremation jewelry has become popular. It’s a comforting way to keep memories close; pendants or bracelets are designed to hold a nominal amount of ashes.
- Pet themed cremation urns, heart shaped urns and other urns with meaningful designs are satisfying choices to house the ashes of a beloved pet. The Arielle Heart Pet Urn that features paw prints is one of many pet cremation urns.
- A few green options include provision for burial with a tree.
Our blog, "Countless Ways to Care for Cremation Ashes," offers other ideas.
Water cremation is a welcome concept of refined technology for cremation that is becoming more widely available. It allows families to have an additional option to consider when making this important and emotional decision. Many are drawn to the eco friendly aspects of this quiet process.
Maggie Shopen Thompson, MFA, is a freelance writer and writing workshop facilitator in Montpelier, Vermont. She has had experience as a caregiver for her mother many years ago, and for her husband and daughter during their recent cancer treatments and recoveries. She is a contributing author/artist in Healing Art & Writing – using creativity to meet illness, curated and edited by Patricia Fontaine, published in August 2016.