March 26, 2012 -- Now the deceased, when they step into the great beyond, can do so without leaving behind a carbon footprint. In what may be the last word in "going green," a handful of funeral homes are offering an alternative to flame cremation. Called alkaline hydrolysis, it uses lye and hot water to liquefy the loved-one, sending the remains down the drain.
Brad Shimp, 60, of Columbus, Ohio, chose the new process for his father, after the 91-year old WWII veteran died last February. "There really are no good solutions," says Shimp, "for what to do with the disposition of the body" after someone you love dies. He calls all the alternatives "difficult."
But of this new one, he says: "I absolutely endorse it. It's green, and, to my mind, better."
Compared with flame cremation, the process—also known as resomation—uses less energy and releases no carbon and no particulate matter into the atmosphere. Conventional cremation also sends mercury from dental work up the flue. Not so resomation. "You're not taking up any land," says Shimp. "You're not putting anything into the air." The dissolving of the body he describes as nothing more than the acceleration of a natural process.
After the body has been dissolved, all that's left is bone (which can be ground-down for presentation to the family in an urn) and such medical appliances as artificial hips, plates, screws or other metal objects.
Alkaline hydrolysis has been used for years by the Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida to dispose of human cadavers, and it has been used for two decades by other institutions to dispose of animal remains. Although some within the funeral industry view it as the next big thing, its progress into the marketplace has been slow.
Industry observers say that for resomation to be legal, laws and regulations governing crematoria have to be amended to include the non-flame process. So far, only 17 states have so modified their laws. In addition, the funeral industry, like any other, is resistant to change: Operators already invested in standard crematoria do not always welcome a new, competing process, and it's not cheap.
Mark Riposta, 56, who runs funeral homes in Maine, including Direct Cremation of Maine, in Belfast, is the first operator in his state to offer alkaline hydrolysis. He performed his first liquefaction just last week.
Riposta says his machine, which he bought from Bio-Response Solutions of Indiana, cost him $150,000, or about twice what he'd have had to pay for a conventional flame unit. "I've been in this industry since I was 19," he says. "I'm no tree-hugger, but this is really life-changing. It just makes sense. You're not sending all those people up into the atmosphere. This is where our nation is heading."
Joe Wilson, head of Bio-Response Solutions, says he doubts alkaline hydrolysis will ever entirely replace conventional cremation. "But over the next 20 years," he says, "I expect it will become the preferred technology. It consumes 1/20th of the energy."