Into Something Rich and Strange
Karen asks: Without great expanses of space, do you think there will be less and less burying?
This sea change is already happening. Cremation rates have been rising steadily since the practice became widely accepted. According to the Cremation Association of North America’s 2021 report, US cremation rates rose from 40.8 percent to 56.1 percent over the past decade. Some countries have historically dealt with space issues by leasing graves, but in the US more and more families choose cremation.
I’ve previously discussed alkaline hydrolysis, aka aquamation, water cremation, green cremation, resomation, flameless cremation, and biocremation. Alkaline hydrolysis is an alternative to traditional cremation, and—as with any new practice in a conservative field—it’s been hailed as the future of environmentally responsible funeral options by some, while simultaneously being decried and viewed with extreme suspicion by more traditional groups.
Alkaline hydrolysis is not yet legal in Texas or Virginia, the two states in which I’m licensed. I was, therefore, very interested to find a class on alkaline hydrolysis available as a continuing education course when I recently renewed my Texas license. And not just available, but suggested as part of a package. I happily signed up, as it’s a subject I find more engaging than social security, vital statistics, or OSHA rights and regulations. (I’m very pro-OSHA rights and regulations, mind you, but that’s a topic I’ve devoted far more hours of my life to so far.)
Alkaline hydrolysis uses a mixture of 95% water and 5% sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, heated to approximately 300°F, to reduce human remains to softened bone and a sterile liquid called effluent, which is composed of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars, and soaps. The bones are ground into powdery “ash” just as they are after flame cremation. The effluent can safely be disposed of via the sewage system, or used as fertilizer. (I don’t know how many alkaline hydrolysis facilities offer to return the liquid remains to families, but I’ve heard at least one story of someone watering their garden with Grandma.) I use the terms alkaline hydrolysis and water cremation interchangeably here, simply to spare myself the pain of repetition.
British scientist Amos Herbert Hobson first received a patent for his alkaline hydrolysis machine in 1888. Hobson used his machine for processing animal remains to separate glue and gelatin from bones, and create fertilizer. A century later, Dr. Gordon I. Kaye and Dr. Peter B. Weber of Albany Medical College turned to alkaline hydrolysis as a means of disposing the remains of animals that had been used in radioisotope experiments. (How is Revenge of the Radioactive Zombie Rabbits not a film yet?)
In 1994 Kaye and Weber patented the Modern Tissue Digester. (I admit, I’m glad that’s not one of the aliases alkaline hydrolysis goes by today.) The first human remains to be “digested” were medical research cadavers at UCLA and the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital. Crematories in the UK and the US began adopting the process in the 2000s. While the process is not yet legal for human remains in every state, it is legal for animals.
Water cremation uses significantly less energy than flame cremation, and produces less carbon dioxide and no mercury emissions or other toxic air emissions. It also neutralizes embalming chemicals, so a body can be traditionally embalmed for transportation or services and still safely undergo alkaline hydrolysis. (Yes, this bit of trivia did make my jackal ears perk straight up.)
Right now, water cremation may be more expensive than flame cremation where it’s offered. This is largely because the equipment is expensive and still harder to come by. States that have legalized the process may not have local facilities, and transportation costs will factor into the price of disposition. Water cremation also takes longer than flame cremation, which would prevent busy facilities from processing as many cases per day.
One cost that alkaline hydrolysis may eliminate is that of a casket, or “alternative container.” The latter refers to the cardboard box used for direct cremation. Crematories require a rigid, leakproof, covered container that is combustible. Even the cheapest possible option costs something. Alkaline hydrolysis places the decedent into a stainless steel wire basket, which allows the liquid to move through while holding the fragments in place. The body is wrapped in a degradable bioplastic bag, or a fabric shroud. I’m sure that as alkaline hydrolysis becomes more widely available, casket companies will begin offering bags and shrouds to keep up.
One of the little advantages of alkaline hydrolysis is that pacemakers and other medical devices don’t need to be removed beforehand. No combustion takes place, so the battery in a pacemaker or defibrillator—or, far more annoying, the battery in a pain pump in the decedent’s lower back—isn’t going to explode! Removing a pacemaker is normally a simple procedure, but requires a licensed embalmer. Sometimes it requires an embalmer to wade through a body bag full of maggots and decomp. Sometimes it requires an embalmer to roll a heavy person while trying to locate the pump in their back. Sometimes the family of the deceased isn’t sure whether or not their relative had a pacemaker, so we have to wand them down with a metal detector multiple times before the crematory operator decides it’s safe to proceed. After either water or flame cremation mechanical devices, along with other medical implants such as pins and screws, are removed from the remains and sent for recycling.
The course I took cites much of its information from the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), the organization which offers certification for crematory operators. CANA appears to have embraced the future of water cremation. They compare the process positively to both burial and flame cremation. The disadvantages listed focus mainly on logistics: limited legality/availability, the expense of the equipment, and the objections of religious groups or those who are reluctant to let go of tradition.
There is one data point, however, that they did not list as a disadvantage, but which I believe is worthy of note: “Typically, a body weighing 400 pounds or more cannot be accommodated in the water cremation cylinder. A shorter body with wider girth cannot be accommodated in the cylinder as easily as a taller body of equal weight with less width.”
With flame cremation, the most important factor with regards to the size of the deceased is simply: Will they fit through the retort door? It’s rare, but possible, that an extremely large body won’t fit and will need to be sent to a specialized facility. However, we’re talking a person weighing more than 800 lbs. in that scenario. I have personally not seen a person too large to be cremated, and I have helped prepare numerous decedents over 400 pounds.
Society levies a “fat tax” on large people in uncounted situations, but funeral services are by far one of the most pernicious. Caskets are expensive enough to begin with, and the price goes up with every two to three inches of extra width. An oversized casket may also require an oversized vault or grave liner from the cemetery. The cost of burying a very large person is exorbitant, and more than many families can afford. Cremation is usually preferred in these circumstances, so it’s important to let families know about that limitation where alkaline hydrolysis is concerned.
I’m very curious about alkaline hydrolysis, and look forward to witnessing the process. As options like human composting also become legal in some states, I dream of funeral gardens. Green cemeteries fed and watered with the dead, without the need for fertilizers, pesticides, or manicured lawns. An excellent rebuttal to the bland sterility of memorial gardens.
Have a question for our necromancer? You don’t have to wait for a fog-shrouded night to drop it off.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.