Water Cremation: A Greener Alternative to Cremation?

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When it comes to the decision between a traditional burial and a cremation, neither choice is particularly kind to the environment. A traditional burial places a lot of unnecessary products into the earth, especially if the deceased is placed in a painted 20 gauge steel casket inside a concrete burial vault. A cremation is likely to release gases and other pollutants into the air, as natural gas is used  to heat the retort to 1,800 degrees for about three hours (depending upon weight). But a new alternative, known as green cremation or water cremation, is getting a lot of attention and is worth discussing with your funeral director.

What is water cremation?

While traditional cremation uses a high heat flame, which produces greenhouse gases, water cremation uses a chemical process called alkaline hydrolysis. The body is put in a solution of water and potassium hydroxide, which is then heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few hours, the body is reduced to bone fragments that are then ground to ash. The ashes can be then held in an urn or buried, just as you would with a traditional cremation. This process is also called green cremation, bio cremation, flameless cremation, or resomation.

The process was first developed in 1988 and is now used at certain research universities, as well as at the Mayo Clinic, for research cadavers. But commercial availability at crematoriums is still limited. Right now, green cremation is only legal in fifteen states: California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Wyoming.

How much does water cremation cost?

Because the process is so new and offered in so few places, price points haven’t been standardized, but a recent New York Times report placed the cost between $1,500 and $3,000 for a green cremation, paperwork, and the remaining ashes provided in a temporary urn. Calling around is important, as is asking for a breakdown of services provided, so there aren’t any surprises when it comes to your bill.

How can you make a traditional cremation more eco-friendly?

Alkaline hydrolysis can be difficult to find, so many people decide to incorporate more environmentally-friendly aspects into an otherwise traditional cremation. These include:

  • Skipping embalming. Some people choose embalming prior to cremation, especially if a viewing or funeral is planned. But if cremation takes place shortly after death (for example if you opt for a direct cremation), refrigeration is usually sufficient to preserve the body. If the cremation takes place within 24 hours after death, no preservation may be needed at all. Speak with your funeral director about options.
  • Skipping a casket.  Caskets can go through the cremation process, but burning a casket releases even more chemicals into the environment. You can often rent a casket with a cardboard cremation liner from the funeral home if you need one for a viewing and funeral. Then for the cremation itself, the cardboard liner slides out for entry into the cremation chamber.
  • Using a biodegradable urn. If you choose to bury the ashes in an urn, a biodegradable urn will decompose into the earth. Some are even be built with nutrient-dense materials that can help feed the soil.
  • Scattering ashes. Instead of using an urn at all, some people forego a vessel and simply scatter ashes.

Research different options regarding green cremation, and be as specific about your final wishes as you can—right down to the type of urn you would prefer and how you would like your ashes to be handled. Make sure your loved ones do the same. This will minimize confusion and uncertainty and ensures that everyone is on the same page.

If water cremation interests you, it’s worth keeping tabs on how alkaline hydrolysis stands in your state in terms of legality and availability, as it may become an even more popular option, with more accessibility and availability, in the coming years and decades. Even if it’s not a feasible or readily available option now, letting loved ones know that it would be your preferred choice if it were to become available can help them make the best plans when the time comes.

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