Earth & Conservation

Liquid Cremation May Be the Best Way to Sustainably Dispose of Corpses

California legislators are considering a bill that would allow state funeral homes to start dissolving bodies in a chemical bath by 2020.

There’s also another potential option — corpses being liquefied and poured down the drain.

It’s not as icky as it sounds, Joe Wilson, CEO of Bio-Response Solutions, told Seeker. Wilson and his family have been making alkaline hydrolysis machines — also known as liquid cremation or “tissue digester” machines — for over 20 years. These devices convert bodies into a sterile liquid, without any pathogens or DNA.

“There’s a lot more gross things that go into the sewer,” he remarked.

Liquid cremation has been around for a while, but mostly used for animal and human cadaver disposal at research universities. The University of Florida installed the first machine for humans more than two decades ago, and Wilson says he has pet disposal systems all over the US.

Only eight states allow alkaline hydrolysis for commercial human use, but it appears to be gaining traction. California legislators are considering a bill that would allow the practice to be available in state funeral homes by 2020.

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The attraction, from Wilson’s perspective, is simple: liquid cremation is the most environmentally conscious choice.

“Burial is done,” he said bluntly. “It’s not sustainable.”

One reason is that the world is simply running out of burial space. Some cemeteries across America have stopped burials all together, and in the UK families are encouraged to use shared graves. Traditional burial is also bad for the earth. In addition to the millions of trees cut down to make caskets, toxic embalming fluid leeches into the soil as the body decomposes.

This leaves us with fire cremation, which has become increasingly popular. In 2016, more people in the US were cremated than given traditional burials, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. It's a solution that’s a little better, but still not great for the environment. Cremation emits greenhouse gases and heavy metals into the air, including mercury found in dental fillings. It also uses a lot of energy. According to Wilson, the energy used in one flame cremation could heat a house in winter in Minnesota (where Bio-Response is based) for an entire week.

Here’s where liquid cremation has the upper hand. It works by bathing the body in an alkaline bath of hot water and some type of base, usually either potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide. The process can be done at high or low temperature, depending on how much time you have. Using high-temperature systems, a body can be dissolved in just a few hours. What’s left is clean bone and a sterile brownish soup composed of sugars, salts, and amino acids.

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“All we’re doing is turning the body back to its natural elements,” Dean Fisher, director of UCLA’s Donated Body Program, told Seeker. “We’re accelerating what naturally happens in the ground.”

Fisher was an early adopter of liquid cremation, and has been advocating its use for years. UCLA installed its alkaline hydrolysis machine in 2012. Since then, Fisher said, they have used it to dispose of over 800 bodies. Fisher’s lab operates with a medical waste license, which is why it has been permitted to use the machine in California.

Fisher says that the carbon footprint produced by liquid cremation is 1/4 that of flame cremation, and 1/8 that of burial. There also isn’t any concern about releasing toxic emissions into the environment. After the alkaline bath, the bones are pulverized into an ash that is given to the families, much like regular cremation. The brownish broth is poured into the sewers and makes its way to a Los Angeles water treatment plant.

In addition to being completely sterile already, by the time it reaches the plant, Fisher said, it’s been diluted with hundreds of millions of gallons of other waste water from all around LA. Potassium hydroxide, the base that the UCLA lab uses, is “a common element that ends up in the water stream anyway,” said Fisher. Health officials in the city government and the water treatment plant aren’t concerned about it, he added.

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Wilson goes a step further. The liquid residue is “excellent” for sewage plants, he claims. It’s also a great natural fertilizer.

Liquid cremation machines don’t come cheap — they cost about twice as much as normal cremation systems, according to Fisher. But both Fisher and Wilson agreed that the savings in operating costs, as well as the benefit to the environment, make it well worth it.

So why is it still so controversial? Blame it on the ick factor. Liquid cremation’s staunchest opponent is the Catholic Church, which argues that it’s not a sacred way to dispose of bodies.

Hey, it may not be sacred, but it sure seems convenient.

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