'Resomation:' Dissolving Body for Eco-Friendly Burial

Funeral homes offer to dissolve body in hot water for burial.

ByABC News
September 6, 2011, 1:51 PM

Sept. 6, 2011 — -- Lived an environmentally friendly life? No reason to let it end with death.

A Scotland firm has created a greener alternative to cremation it calls "resomation" -- a high-temperature water and chemical treatment that dissolves mortal remains.

The process is as quick as traditional flame cremations, but without the environmentally harmful chemical emissions.

"To the public, what they see is actually no different from a standard cremation process," Sandy Sullivan, founder and managing director of Resomation Ltd, told Discovery News.

A body is put into a capsule-like chamber, which is then filled with water and a chemical called potassium hydroxide, which is highly alkaline -- the opposite of acid.

The water is heated and gently circulated. After two- to three hours, all that is left of the body is bone, which is then ground down into a powder to be returned to the family. The water, which contains broken down organic materials, is funneled into standard municipal water treatment facilities and returned into the hydrological cycle.

The patented process not only cuts the release of greenhouse gases common with flame-based cremations, it also allows toxic mercury from a deceased's dental work to be recovered and safely disposed of.

"This process returns to the family cremated remains. The difference is this is an environmental process that doesn't have the air emissions you experience with traditional flame cremations," Steven Schaal, president of Matthews Cremation of Orlando, Fla., told Discovery News.

A St. Petersburg, Fla., funeral is being outfitted with the world's first commercially available resomation machine, with operations expected to being next month.

The process, also known as alkaline hydrolysis, has been used at the University of Florida in Gainesville and at the Mayo Clinic to dispose of cadavers used for medical research.

So far, alkaline hydrolysis has been approved for commercial use in Florida, Minnesota, Maryland, Oregon, Kansas, Colorado and Maine. The University of California, Los Angeles, also is slated to receive a resomation machine for use through its medical school. Several other states, as well as the United Kingdom and other countries are considering the technology.

"Let's face it -- there's no nice way to go," said Sullivan. "You have to go from what looks like a human person to ash and bone, whether you get there by flame or decomposition."

"If you stood in front of a cremation, with the flames and heat, it seems violent. You go next door and the resomation is quiet. It's stainless steel and clinical and sterile. It seems nicer and returns (a body) quickly to ash," he said.

"We're using the exact same chemisty that's carried out by bacteria (after a burial) but instead of happening over months and years, it happens in three hours."