Oregon legalized alkaline hydrolysis (AH) in 2009, and it’s one of just a few states where AH facilities are available for human remains. 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 bio-cremation, flameless cremation, green cremation, chemical cremation, or resomation. In Oregon, AH is often called simply “dissolution” to distinguish it from the process of flame cremation. Read more about Oregon's burial and cremation laws.
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. For example, one Catholic organization has argued that “[d]issolving bodies in a vat of chemicals and pouring the resultant liquid down the drain is not a respectful way to dispose of human remains.” 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 was legalized in Oregon in 2009, when the state updated its definition of “final disposition” to include the dissolution of human remains:
“Final disposition” means the burial, interment, cremation, dissolution or other disposition of human remains authorized by the board by rule. (Oregon Revised Statutes § 692.010(4).)
In Oregon, alkaline hydrolysis is regulated by the state’s Mortuary and Cemetery Board, which has published detailed rules covering “alternative disposition facilities.”
Pearson’s Funeral Home has published this informative and even entertaining video about alkaline hydrolysis in Oregon.
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.