It may not be ideal first date banter or family dinner conversation (unless your family is like the Fisher clan of "Six Feet Under"), but it's an important issue: Where do you want your body to go after you die?
Morbid? Maybe. But relevant nonetheless, especially because for some Americans, the list of posthumous options is expanding. California just became the 15th state to legalize a process of disposing human remains known as alkaline hydrolysis, or "water cremation."
If you're squeamish or otherwise easily icked out, consider this your trigger warning. Alkaline hydrolysis employs a machine to bathe bodies in a chemical mixture that dissolves protein, blood and fat. According to The New York Times, all that remains is a "coffee-colored liquid, powdery bone and any metal implants like dental fillings."
The process isn't entirely new. It's been used to dispose of pets and human cadavers since the 1990s, and it's picked up popularity (if you can call it that?) in the last decade or so. Some proponents say the method is a lot more environmentally friendly than formaldehyde and other chemicals used in embalming, and burying bodies in caskets and vaults that take up tons of real estate. Traditional cremation has long been heralded as a greener option, but even that relies on the use of natural gas and the emission of toxic pollutants, including mercury. Enter alkaline hydrolysis.
So what makes the service something of a hot commodity?
"I think to some extent, it's because cremation is growing and people are becoming educated on end-of-life options and are open to alternatives," says Jason J. Bradshaw, president and CEO of Minnesota-based Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services. "Alkaline hydrolysis is a lot like cremation in that all the same funerary/memorial options are available, and in the end, 'ashes' remain, except the process has a much lower carbon footprint and many see it as being a gentler process than flame cremation."
Bradshaw's funeral home was the first to offer alkaline hydrolysis commercially in the Twin Cities area after Minnesota became the first state to legalize alkaline hydrolysis in 2003. The state made the decision based on customer demand and a commitment to environmental consciousness.
"For our company, when the percentage of people choosing cremation exceeded 50 percent and people were asking us if their loved one stayed in our care for the cremation process itself, we knew we needed to buy a crematory instead of outsourcing that part of our business," Bradshaw says. "We heard that Mayo Clinic had been using this process [alkaline hydrolysis], which had no emissions concerns and was being well received, so we saw this as an opportunity to offer an alternative to flame cremation to our families and be a good steward to our environment." Two other funeral homes in the Twin Cities area also considered installing traditional flame crematories, however, neighbors put a stop to them over concerns about airborne mercury emissions.
Despite what seems to be a positive reception, alkaline hydrolysis is still legal in only a handful of states. "This comes down to a simple issue of demand by the public," Bradshaw explains. "Most states have legalized three forms of disposition: burial, cremation and body donation." According to Bradshaw, until a few years ago, medical institutions like Mayo Clinic were the primary users of alkaline hydrolysis, so the service fell under the category of "body donation."
Now, as more people become aware of the option and make requests, funeral directors like Bradshaw are moving for change. "More funeral homes and associations are asking their states to amend their statutes to either add alkaline hydrolysis as a fourth method of disposition or expand the definition of cremation to include it," he says. "Right now, it appears to be like a snowball rolling down a hill, in that everything seems to be speeding up quite quickly. We were very fortunate to be in Minnesota, which was the first state to recognize it and I presume that in the next five years or so, most states will have addressed this."