When I Die, Dissolve Me in Lye: The Liquid Cremation Controversy

cremation ashes photo

Image credit: Katrina Wiese, used under Creative Commons license.

From composting your corpse to greening your funeral, we've looked at plenty of options for more sustainable disposal of human remains. Perhaps the most controversial is chemical hydrolisis, in which bodies are dissolved in lye. While headlines about the dead being flushed down the sewer may have stoked controversy, advocates say the end result is almost indistinguishable from regular cremation. Indistinguishable, that is, except for greatly reduced carbon emissions. So why isn't it catching on?Alkaline Hydrolysis Produces Ash-Like Remains
Along with the idea of freezing bodies in liquid nitrogen and then grinding them into a powder, there's a lot to be said for the concept of chemical or alkaline hydrolysis. Using roughly one quarter of the emissions of a traditional cremation, yet producing very similar end results, I find it hard to understand why there is so much opposition to the idea.

The Columbus Dispatch, for example, is reporting on an Ohio funeral business that has been stopped from using alkaline hydrolysis by the Ohio Department of Health, and is taking the matter to court:

Edwards began using the process in January and had disposed of 19 bodies with it, until the state stopped the funeral home from doing it last week. The process has not been approved in Ohio for human bodies. It has, however, been used for animal cadavers for a while. Business owner Jeff Edwards then filed for a restraining order against the Health Department, asking the court to force the department to reverse its March 17 decision prohibiting the process in Ohio.

Is Chemical Hydrolysis Safe?
Disposal of bodies is, naturally enough, both a public safety concern and a culturally sensitive matter. I am not an expert on the subject of chemistry or cremation, and I can't comment on the relative environmental safety of alkaine or chemical hydrolysis—these are issues that do need to be addressed by the proper authorities though.

What interests me, however, is the visceral, gut reaction that many people seem to have to such an idea. The fact that lye is a byproduct of the chlorine industry will have many people nervous—but barring any provable pollution or toxicity issues for the environment, I must say this sounds a whole lot more appealing to me than burning up natural gas to get rid of my remains.

Water Cremation: What's In a Name
Part of the problem—as a funeral director contact of mine noted—is that people keep wanting to talk about dissolving bodies—which from a cultural perspective is both alien and sinister to us. Burning bodies, on the other hand, is for some reason culturally accepted.

It's interesting then to note that articles about alkaline hydrolisis being practice elsewhere around the Globe talk about "water cremation" as a green burial alternative.

Sometimes it's not just what you do that counts, but what you call it too...

More on Green Burial and Alkaline Hydrolysis
Belgian Undertakers Want to Dissolve and Flush Dead into Sewers
Composting Your Corpse (Again)
how to Green Your Funeral
Promessa's Green Burial Technology: Freezing and Grinding Your Corpse

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