Minnesota was the first state to legalize alkaline hydrolysis (AH), and it’s one of just a few states where AH facilities are available to the public. An alternative to traditional cremation or burial, alkaline hydrolysis uses water, an alkali solution, pressure, and heat to speed up the body’s decomposition, resulting in a small amount of liquid separated from bone fragments that resemble cremated remains.
Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) goes by many different names, such as green cremation, bio-cremation, flameless cremation, chemical cremation, or resomation.
Alkaline hydrolysis is a chemical process that uses a solution of 95% water and 5% potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide to reduce a body to components of liquid and bone.
Bone fragments are retained so they can be dried and turned into a substance similar to cremated ashes. The bone byproduct of AH may be scattered, buried, or disposed in any way cremated ashes are handled. Implants such as dental fillings or pacemakers can be easily separated from the bone fragments before the bones are rendered into “ash.”
The liquid byproduct of alkaline hydrolysis is a nontoxic solution of amino acids, peptides, sugars, and soap that can be disposed of through local sewage systems. Many have uncomfortably analogized this process to “pouring bodies down the drain,” a characterization that often overlooks the fact that body fluids and blood are routinely poured down the drain during traditional embalming practices.
Essentially, alkaline hydrolysis mirrors the chemical decomposition that happens when a body is buried, except AH takes just hours -- from three to 12 depending on the temperature and pressure in the chamber -- instead of months or years.
Supporters of alkaline hydrolysis argue that it’s the most environmentally friendly method of body disposition, with the potential to avert the millions of tons of wood, metal, and concrete -- along with hundreds of thousands of gallons of embalming fluid -- buried each year in U.S. cemeteries. Proponents note that alkaline hydrolysis neutralizes embalming chemicals, toxic drugs such as chemotherapy medicines, and infectious organisms. It also avoids mercury emissions, a byproduct of heat cremation, and uses much less energy than traditional cremation facilities. In the future, it is even possible that the liquid component of AH could be made available to families for use as fertilizer or compost.
Some who object to alkaline hydrolysis feel that not enough is known about possible health and safety issues. So far, at least one U.S. city has closely monitored water quality after the installation of an AH system and found the output safe enough to allow the system to run at full capacity. (See the discussion about St. Petersberg, Florida in the article Flush and Bone: Funeralizing Alkaline Hydrolysis in the United States, Science, Technology, & Human Values, Vol. 39(5), 2104, p. 672.)
Most opponents of AH object to it on the grounds that it seems gruesome or that it is not a dignified way to treat human remains. Not all that long ago, traditional cremation was viewed the same way. As an article on TwinCities.com reflected:
“If [AH] sounds gruesomely strange, consider the transformation that cremation has experienced over a couple of generations to become the preferred method in Minnesota of dealing with a dead body. Although burning a corpse has long been part of human tradition, it was an exotic practice in Minnesota 50 years ago when fewer than 2 percent of all deaths in the state resulted in a cremation. But cremation rates crept up a percentage point or two each year so that by 2011, there were 20,175 cremations in Minnesota, compared with 18,070 burials, according to state Health Department figures.”
Alkaline hydrolysis equipment is expensive; it may cost a provider between $150,000 and $400,000 to purchase an AH unit, depending on the size of the machine as well as the temperature and pressure at which the system can operate. (Higher temperature and greater pressure result in faster decomposition, which allows a provider to handle multiple bodies per day, if necessary.) Because the equipment costs more than traditional cremation machinery, the procedure may be more expensive for consumers. That said, the costs of burial and cremation services vary widely and AH may cost more, about the same, or less than traditional methods, depending on the provider and options you choose.
For example, in Minnesota, basic alkaline hydrolysis costs about $2,400, while the cost of direct cremation -- that is, simple cremation without an on-site ceremony -- ranges from about $800 to more than $4,300, depending on the provider. The national average cost for a traditional funeral, including burial and a headstone or monument, is about $10,000.
In Minnesota, there is currently just one facility offering alkaline hydrolysis to the public. Bradshaw Funeral Services has been offering green cremation since 2012.
To learn more about alkaline hydrolysis in Minnesota, see the website of the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Minnesota.
To read the laws governing alkaline hydrolysis in Minnesota, see Minnesota Statutes § 149A.941.
To learn more about final arrangements, including more about green funerals or traditional methods of body disposition, see the section Getting Your Affairs in Order on Nolo.com.