For decades, people choosing what happens to their body after death have had only two realistic options -- burial or cremation. But that may be changing. A new process, called “alkaline hydrolysis” (AH), is available in about a dozen states, and every year more states are considering legalizing the technology. (The process may go by another name in your area, such as bio-cremation, resomation, aquamation, green cremation, flameless cremation, or water cremation.)
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.
From the early 1990s through the mid-2000s, AH was used only as a method for disposing animal remains or human bodies that had been left to medical schools for research. More recently, states have been considering adding AH to the methods consumers might choose for body disposition. Often, this proposal is controversial.
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 oppose alkaline hydrolysis counter that not enough is known about possible health and safety issues. (Extensive monitoring in St. Petersburg, Florida showed no adverse effects on water quality.) However, most opponents object to AH on the grounds that it is not a dignified way to treat human remains. For example, the Catholic Conference of Ohio has contributed to the defeat of alkaline hydrolysis legislation in that state, arguing that “Dissolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resultant liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.” (Ohio is currently reconsidering the issue; a bill proposing the legalization of alkaline hydrolysis is making its way through the state legislature.) Other Catholics, however, have concluded that AH is “morally neutral,” and much like cremation from the Catholic point of view. (See the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 2008, p. 695.)
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.
Alkaline hydrolysis is currently legal in the states listed below, but that doesn’t mean it’s always readily available. To learn more, click on a state. If you don’t yet see information for your state, check back. We’ll continue to add state by state information to this page.
Read more about the process of alkaline hydrolysis on the website for the Cremation Association of America.
To learn more about final arrangements, including traditional methods of body disposition, see the section Getting Your Affairs in Order on Nolo.com.